Progress: A Double Edged Sword

Change from a variety of perspectives

Buzz word ‘Going Forward’ encapsulates an expectation of future directional steps away from the inefficiencies of the past and making positive changes towards the future. It is hard to completely agree that progress is an irreversible, one-directional change towards improvement. Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson describes progress as a “Permanent zig zag.” But what areas are key to progress and what deteriorations can we disregard in our metric to calculate progress.

Ireland is unique in that we tend to be slow to progress, we exited the Bronze age 300 years later than Britain and our conservative Christian values kept a firm grasp on social right up until thirty/twenty years ago. But when we do progress, we take leapfrog steps, like with LGBT rights which within two and a half decades saw decriminalisation, marriage equality, and an openly gay Taoiseach. (The worlds fourth openly head of government) 

Progress does depend on one's perspective. From the eyes of analysts, there are clear indications that humanity is improving. War is at an all-time low, food never been more plentiful, more countries are coming out poverty and humans are living longer, healthier lives. However, from the perceptive of an ordinary citizen, rising social costs, uncertainty, and impacts from economic, technological and environmental conditions, might give a different viewpoint. (particularly if you’re Venezuelan) Progress is a fragmented collection of change. Three primary areas are Technological, Social and Economical. 

Social VS Technological VS Economical Progress

Society is a complex instrument and although we are making progress in some areas, it could be at the expense of other areas. While one country may have economical or technological progress, it might come at the expense of social issues. Take Japan who are technological leaders (just look at their toilets.) and boast the third strongest economy. But this comes at the expense of key social experiences. Speaking to one Japanese person; he describes a shy, overworked population who has neither the time nor the motivation to seek romance. His views are backed up by a 2011 survey (Reported by The Guardian) highlighting 61% of men and 49% of women aged 18-34 who are single and that 30% never had a date. 

Technologies are the foundation of what has taken us out of the caves and into towers of steel and glass. It alone is a significant metric to human progress while the economy is the wheels that keep us moving, all done to maintain our social structures. Each area is dependent on the other wither that is society's adaption to social media, or consumer electronic design adapting to human needs or money been the deciding factor for any decision made. 

Exploration is an invaluable feature for our globalised society. A desire to look beyond the horizon has driven us to explore new lands. We’ve discovered resources and interacted with every culture on earth. We’ve explored every land mast, the deepest parts of the oceans and reached for the skies and beyond. We broke ground on the final Frontier in 1969 with the first humans on the moon and 51 years later, we’re racing to land the first human on Mars. Just like when the first Vikings returned to Scandinavia from their conquests in Europe or the first Europeans from the Americas, our explorers always return with new resources and knowledge that spark a new age in humanity. Once we start exploring the solar system, who knows what new treasures await our progress.

Food is rapidly changing. We’ve mastered modifications to virtually every species making more sustainable ways to feed our people. To tackle issues like climate change and a demand for more plant-based alternatives numerous startups like Beyond-Meat and the Impossible company are promising authentic meat experiences that don’t clock up the same carbon footprint as real meat. Companies like “Cell-Based Tech” grow meat in a lab instead of the farm offering a humane and sustainable source of real meat for those who desire it. Although many publishers including Vox report that consumers are not quite sold on the idea of their meat grown in a laboratory. Finally, Vertical farming offers a sustainable way to grow plant-based foods in urban areas thus reducing the transportation required to get your veggies from field to plate. This farming also hopes to provide more organic and chemical-free crops at a fraction of the resources that traditional tillage consumes. “SquareRoots” founded by Elon Musks' younger brother hopes to be the next generation of ‘buy local’ agriculture. 

Healthcare has seen miracles in medicines, vaccines. We’ve eliminated or immunised countless diseases and continue research to cure, treat or prevent many current diseases like cancer, HIV and more. The Washington Post reported on new research from two Californian universities who say a cure for the common cold could be on its way. Nanotechnology; tiny robots may offer a way of monitoring one's health on a cellular level while targeting specific regions of the body for treatments without interfering with the rest of the body. Elon Musk is funding a project known as Neurlink. A plan to allow for brain implants into a patient suffering from brain diseases. 

Economic 

The 2007 bust highlighted just how fragile our economies are. When economies go bust, so too does significant progress in research and technology. Ten years out of the great recession and things are booming again. Concerns are rising about another rescission after the famous inverted yield curve (which predicted all previous recessions since the 1950s) started sending warning signs in mid-2019. Venezuela is a spine-tingling case study on how bad things could really go. The issue goes way back to the 1970s when the US among others dropped the gold standard. Meaning the US Dollar was no longer backed by gold reserves and has lead to an inflation runaway train that has brought us to the point of unprecedented debit. If our economies were to fall like dominos this would have a significant halt on research and development. But even if our economies can weather the storms, the issue of inflation highlights serious impacts on social progress as-well. 

Social Costs are showing that young, first-time buyers have been priced out of the property market. Childcare costs are also leading many couples to put off family planning and in some cases indefinitely. Healthcare is also a rising cost. Despite the leaps in treatments, not everyone can afford the cost. 

The Double-Edged Sword 

Survival is the mother of all inventions. Many of our greatest were achieved from a threat to our survival. But our technology can be described as a double-edged sword. A scalpel can save the life of a patient in an ER room while killing another in a dark alley. An unfortunate consequence of everything we produce is that it can be reused or reverse engineered to cause chaos. 

War is horrible, by no means think I’m suggesting otherwise. However, the outcome of past wars has lead to some vital technologies we take for granted every day. WWII helped develop the internet, GPS, Microwaves, Jet engines and even duck tape. The Space Race is regarded by many as the result of the Cold War. (Do not all historians agree.) Nuclear power would not have gained the resourcing needed to develop it into an energy source if it was not for the militaries' interest in nuclear weapons. Perhaps we’d be using thorium instead of uranium if the focus was primarily on energy and not weapons. The point is as author Rick Riordan puts it “Out of every tragedy comes new strength.”

Climate Change is our biggest threat in the current day. It could be the trigger to famine, disease, and strife. But it might be the perfect opportunity to make key progressive improvements to our world. We might change our eating habits, which will assist indirectly in health benefits and an increase in the food supply. Also, our energy source could receive more pragmatic approval from society who demand more and more every year. One problem we face is many of our solutions to foes fuels are met with various objections many of whom are the typical “not in my back yard.” 

Nuclear is receiving perhaps the biggest unfair press because of the three disasters. However Nuclear is perhaps the most powerful and cleanest for a new age. Not in its current form of Nuclear fission, but perhaps Nuclear fusion. (US dept. Energy explain here

This brings up another point. The use of nuclear weaponry. It is consistently criticised as humanity's deathliest liability. There is no denying the use of such arsenal would be catastrophic for the planet, however, so far it probably has played the biggest piece-time role thanks to the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. The countries in possession have too much loose to use against each other and in reality, they only serve as a deterrent. They have caused both the US and Russia, for example, they would think twice about using such weapons against each other out of fear of total annihilation. It would be naive to think it’ll never happen. There is the potential of rogue nations and terrorists from using or threatening to use them. 

The next frontier in technology is AI. This has the potential to radically change humans ability to calculate the world around it. AI also known as machine learning has been around for a while now, but advancements in robotics and the increase in processing power in computers means AI could soon exceed our intelligence. Although we’re nowhere near the age of killer robots, AI could see significant amounts of jobs currently undertaken by humans, been replaced with technology. We’re not just talking in manufacturing but everything from drivers to customer services, Radiology, Financial analysts even actors (with the development CGI and Deep fakes.) 

Digital currencies and a network of communications through the internet are an enhancing offering but also make us very vulnerable if things go wrong. With the risk of cyber warfare or terrorism, technical failures or natural events like a solar flare could cause our way of life to be temporarily or even long term disrupted. It is key that when we build infrastructure, we build it to withstand such occurrences and repair and replacement strategies get us back online quickly. If the internet went down for an extended period as a result of a natural disaster like in Puerto Rico in a cashless society, this could have devastating consequences for everyday life. If we are making ourselves more vulnerable to disruption, are we not taking a step back in progress? 

A roundup

We are making strides in humanity's progress for the better but that doesn’t mean every one of us is going to be carried with it. We can strive for a better world for the current populations but the reality is this is separate from the progress of mankind. From an individual perspective (either personal or communal) there is always a risk of progress going backwards despite humanities' progress going forward. As I’ve explained there is a difference between progress as a species and progress on a social present level. We may one day evolve to become a multi-planetary species living longer than any mammal on earth. One thing that history has shown, is when the man-made world of empires collapse, life goes on and so too does the progress we’ve already made, despite local economical and social declines. That been said, a lot of our knowledge exists on a medium that has no physical existence beyond ones and zeros and this makes our preservation more vulnerable in the wake of a natural disaster. With lethal weapons and chemicals, we not only face natural treats but also made ones too. Misused could wipe us out and the very progress we’ve built with it. Untimely progress is dependant on the perspective you argue for. 

© 2020 by Lance Kerrigan.