Is technology progress? (Technology, progress, and peace, Part 1)

This will be a two-part series on technology, progress, and peace. In this first part I discuss the general question of whether or not technology is progress.

I struggle with technology. Not because it is difficult for me to understand or use, but because I am not convinced that the ever-progressing technologies of today lead always to a better and better world. As a software engineer, I use technology – in the form of a computer and the internet – every single day. In fact, I write software that runs on computers and is used over the internet. In my personal life, I am becoming increasingly dependent on the internet. I can hardly imagine not having email to communicate instantaneously with friends and family. Whenever I am wondering about something I have Google at my fingertips for instant gratification. I use a cell phone, a dishwasher, a microwave, a hair dryer, a washing machine, a clothes dryer, a refrigerator. Which of these things are progress and which are not? Why is it that to me a refrigerator and a washing machine seem unquestionably to be progress, but a computer and the internet do not? Perhaps it is simply that I am conservative by nature and resist new developments and change? Or perhaps there is something more to my distinctions. I would define something as “progress” if it contributes to our general happiness and well-being. The question is, at what point does one draw the line between something that genuinely makes lives better and something that is simply an unnecessary, perhaps even detrimental, “convenience” that does not noticeably improve the quality of life?

Let’s look closer at some of the technologies and inventions I consider progress. One, without a doubt, is birth control. Birth control freed women from the burden of being unable to control when they had children other than by refraining from sex. As history demonstrates, this made a huge difference in women’s lives. Other technologies that seem to unquestionably be progress include major time-saving devices such as refrigerators and washing machines, which allowed people to spend time pursuing more meaningful activities than chores, and basic communication devices such as the wired telephone and the wireless radio, which allowed people to communicate more effectively across great distances.

On the other hand, one example of something that is in my mind unquestionably NOT progress is the television. One may argue that it allows effective mass communication. While I agree that communication is important, I think the television has overall had a negative impact on our happiness and well-being as a society, as it has helped create the overly consumerist society in which we find ourselves today. Another thing that I do not consider progress is the atomic bomb. It has no value other than to kill people in huge numbers. Earlier weapons, such as the bow and arrow, spears, and perhaps some guns, had value because people used them to kill animals to feed themselves. However, the weapons in modern times have no such value and are not progress.

Finally, there are the things that do not fall neatly on one side or the other, computers and the internet being topmost in my mind. Being dependent on them myself, it is difficult for me to say conclusively that they are not progress, but it is also difficult for me to see ways in which they greatly enhance our general well-being. I am not sure it is of value to be able to have instant gratification for just about any question one might have, to have to do so little work to find an answer. I am not sure the bombardment of news and the bombardment of entertainment is leading to people’s increased happiness. I am not even convinced that the many software programs intended to be educational or to aid with learning add much value in the end (although I work for a company that produces such software). The problems with education in our society are not ones that are going to be fixed by dumping more technology into people’s laps.

The primary aspect of computers and the internet that I think could be considered progress is the increased ability to communicate – not only with people that you would already be in touch with no matter what (your close friends and family), but with people that you would otherwise never know. People living halfway across the world. The internet has made the world a much smaller place. I could have a multi-way discussion with a person living in Thailand, a person living in South Africa, and a person living in Russia. This is, I think, progress. We have a much greater opportunity than ever before to get to know people different from us, and this is the sort of bridge-building connection that can help lead to a more peaceful world.

A major issue that must be considered when thinking about whether technology is progress is the fact that technology distinguishes between social classes. The upper and then middle classes get the new technologies first. Poor people were still washing their clothes by hand in washtubs long after the wealthy had washing machines. Only after a technology has become deeply entrenched in society does it become just about equally available to all social classes – such as the landline telephone or the refrigerator. Newer technologies are still very much classist. Only the (relatively) wealthy have computers and internet access. There are millions of people in this country (the United States), not to mention in the rest of the world, who do not have a computer or internet. The way in which technology starts with the wealthy and trickles down to the poor can be one way to try to measure progress. If a technology is unquestionably progress, that would mean anyone living without it is living an unquestionably lower quality of life than those with the technology. Looking at things in this light, it is difficult to say whether any technology at all is unquestionably progress. I believe, in fact, that it is entirely possible to live a high-quality, fulfilling life, with very little technology.

Is technology progress? In my short exploration of this question, I have not come to a conclusive answer, nor did I expect to. I do not think there is a clear-cut answer. What technology is considered progress is fluid, dependent on the social context, the use to which the item is put, and the potential increased quality of life, which may vary from one individual to the next.

Part 2 of this series on technology, progress, and peace, in which I discuss the question of “Humanitarian technology?” is here.

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