Wednesday, October 26, 2011

More on the delusion of progress

Imagine you are in a sinking boat and you are trying to bail out the water using a leaky wooden bucket.  And further imagine that, unbeknownst to you, you are making no progress whatsoever because the water you toss overboard is blowing right back into another part of the boat.  

Suppose that someone comes along and gives you a better bucket, one without leaks, so that you are able to get more water with each scoop.  Then, a short while later, someone else comes along and gives you an even better bucket; this one is ergonomically designed, lightweight, and has a special shape that allows you to scoop faster and collect twice as much water.  

When you think back on when you started bailing with your leaky wooden bucket, it sure seems like you are in a much better situation now with your high tech bucket than you were before. The problem, of course, is that you are focused in on the immediate situation: how much water you can scoop and how fast, and not getting the bigger picture.  You can’t see that whatever bucket you use, the boat will sink just as fast.

When we scrutinize a specific technological innovation, our evaluation is usually limited to the set of conditions or problems that that technology was designed to deal with.  The physical operation of the technology itself often restricts our perspective.  Within this limited focus, it can appear that a new technology is a clear improvement over preexisting conditions.  The task at hand can be accomplished faster, or more efficiently, or more elegantly than before.  What we frequently don’t see is how peripheral conditions are affected.   

We see our green weed-free lawn and not the algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico that results from the fertilizer that washes into the gutter.  We see our growing list of friends on Facebook and wonder at how socially barren life must have been prior to the internet, as we sit physically isolated and alone in front of a computer screen. 

Technological progress is a mirage.  And we fall for it again and again like thirsty dogs baked senseless by the desert sun.

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