Skip to main content

The Checkerboard of Progress

My first year with a smartphone is coming to a close. It has confirmed what I've believed for years: wait, wait, and wait some more with new technology and then give in. You win on everything.

As impressive as smartphone technology is, there is another new 'gadget' in my house that impresses me more. My new toothbrush. I am not being facetious. I actually look forward to brushing my teeth. 

It's not electric. It's the Oral B brand, and appears made with a good design and materials. You can actually notice the improvement.

This is the first premium toothbrush I have ever bought. I used to get freebies from American dentists. Maybe they just weren't that good. But Mexican dentists don't do the promotional thing, so I had to buy my own toothbrush.

It was such an odd experience to be so impressed by such a humble tool that it provoked me into thinking about Progress in general. 

During my lifetime (born in the Fifties), most material progress has come in the field of microelectronics. And there, advancement has been spectacular. Microelectronics has been to my generation what Plastics were to my parents' generation. But look around your house and take inventory of all the static, non-improved things. It's worse than that: most things have made negative progress.

I wish to convince the reader that material progress is slowing down. Perhaps this seems ridiculous to you because you remember your grade school teacher gloating about how knowledge has been expanding exponentially the last couple centuries. (But why should you believe her? -- the school system is virtually the limiting case of negative progress.)

But all that means is that the sheer number of books published, the number of research papers, and the gigabytes of junk manufactured has gone up exponentially. Big deal!

Now for the coup de grace: take your age in years and subtract it from your year-of-birth. Look at how drastically the world changed from that year to your year-of-birth, and how paltry the changes have been, in comparison, since your year-of-birth.

In my case, the comparison is shocking when I start to imagine it in detail.


Sondra said…
You hit the nail on the head...very little of the "progress" has been a benefit to society, humanity, the individual, or the Earth as a whole. Reality is just the opposite. We should all be driving around in solar powered cars and have a totally off grid home, brains swelling education of science, math, and the arts...yet all the advancement is going to weaponry and technology making billions of cellphones that are completely useless without the "morbidly obese capitalist" hub at top that keeps it active, just refuse to pay your bill and see how useful it is then. I do not have a smart phone. Yes I can see how handy it is I can also see how useless it is.
Ed said…
I complied with your suggestion and present my selected findings. The 'progress' that has been made in the 75 years since my birth has been mostly refinements of prior inventions. In both of the periods I attempted to exclude refinements and only list the basic discovery plus an off the wall invention or two.

75 years before birth:
Telephone, phonograph, first incandescent lightbulb, induction electric motor, diesel engine, the airplane, radio, air conditioner, Bakelite, helicopter, gyro compass, motion pictures, zipper, insulin, TV, frozen food, liquid fueled rocket, iron lung, penicillin, jet engine, first canned beer, radar, ballpoint pen, software controlled computer & synthetic rubber.

75 years after birth:
Kidney dialysis machine, atomic and hydrogen bomb, microwave oven, mobile phone, transistor, oral contraceptives, solar cell, optic fiber, laser, internal pacemaker, microchip, artificial heart, bar-code scanner, gene splicing, magnetic resonance imaging, fuel cell, Viagra, nanotechnology & lots of computer software.
Good list. Let's see if we can reduce it over-arching fundamentals:

Prior to birth: 1) the fundamental shift from human and animal muscle to coal and petroleum burning machings, 2) smallpox vaccine and other vaccines for scourges that killed large fractions of the population -- people who most of their life ahead of them, 3) Pasteur and Darwin, 4)generating electricity and using it in electromechanical machines. 5) geographical discovery, 6) the establishment of physics and chemistry, 7) the conquest of religion and superstition, 8) the French Revolution.
Add: 9) the conquest of Winter.
XXXXX said…
Spartans don't use toothbrushes.
Wasn't there a famous Margaret Rourke-Wwhite photographs of Gandhi's six possessions? And one of them was a toothbrush.
There is a man stranded on an island and he sees a man in a boat coming towards him waving and he says "Thank God, A Boat".

The man in the boat sees the man on the island waving and he says "Thank God, An Island"