Friday, February 5, 2010

The Myth of Progress (Continued)


"Technological advances have brought us greater comfort, leisure, health, and happiness – what we call our “modern lifestyle” – and have liberated us from mind-numbing, repetitive, boring work."


You’ve got to be kidding.

We have to begin this discussion by looking at who exactly we are talking about when we say “we.” The march of industrialization, centrally controlled technologies, and pollution – in other words, the vast majority of what is termed "progress" – has had a sharply different effect for the world’s small, privileged elites than it has on everybody else.

The great majority of the world’s people have been forced by “progress” into longer and longer work hours at increasingly boring work compared to what their ancestors did, with less and less control over their work day, and with less and less right or ability to make decisions or use their creativity. Work has become more severely hierarchically controlled, and people are hired and fired at the whim of their employers. In addition, the general trend is for the world’s people to be forced to spend the bulk of their lives indoors or underground (in mines or basements). The human animal is left longing for the sky, the wind, the fields and hills, the air, that had been our surroundings most of the time through our hundreds of thousands of years of history.

So almost any celebration of what technology has supposedly done for “us” is misleading, because "us" refers to a tiny percentage of the world's population that has escaped the effects of "progress" that I've just described.

“Progress” has meant, above all, the forcing of people away from their land-based and communal ways of life, and into employment for a boss. In the process, we have also lost our extended networks of love, support, and companionship from relatives and community members -- our tribe. This is the essence of the change that has taken place over the past few thousand years, but most sharply over the past 500 years, and then more sharply again over the past 150 years, in how the human race lives.

I will not, for now, try to review further the global suffering that is, overwhelmingly, the primary impact that “progress” has had. Books and books have been written on the subject for those who can face the details of what has been wreaked in recent centuries. I will name just a few, for people who would be interested in places to begin: The West and the Rest of Us by Chinweizu (get it through your library -- it's out of print); In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander; Solar Storms by Linda Hogan (a novel, but in many ways brings the points home more effectively than pieces of non-fiction); The End of Nature by Bill McKibben.

But even for the more privileged…

Technology hasn’t really done for anyone what its promoters claim it does.

We are busier and more pressured than ever, and it is technology that creates this pace of life, so the claim of increased leisure is the opposite of the truth.

We do not spend less of our time in boring, repetitive activities – we sit for hours in chairs pointing and clicking, even on our non-work hours, and it’s making us all a little crazy. We spend parts of each day, sometimes many hours, literally strapped to our seats, like prisoners, as we sit in cars and airplanes. (I am strapped to my seat as I write this, and wishing I could get up to go the bathroom, but I’m putting off making the people next to me get up from their cramped, crowded seats and squeeze into the aisle.) We spend our days staring at screens. Life is getting more and more homogenized and repetitive, as more and more millions of our race spend our days doing the same thing – working at computer screens, and the screens of our cell phones and Blackberries.

We don’t have greater health. Besides the epidemic of cancer and heart disease, we have an increasing flood of mysterious complaints – fatigue, dizziness, aches and pains, that are hard to discover the origins of, because we are being exposed to so many substances and so many kinds of radiation (“waves”) that we have no way to know what’s causing what.

We – the privileged “we” – do have greater comfort, in the sense of less cold, less heat (for now), soft comfortable clean clothes, great mattresses. But new discomforts are taking the place of these, including chronic back and joint problems that result from our”lifestyle”, the health complaints I just mentioned, and intense restlessness from having to sit or stand in one place so much.

And anyhow, comfort isn’t everything. On the list of the factors that lead to a satisfying, meaningful, happy experience of life, comfort – except for the avoidance of severe discomfort – plays a pretty small role.

Which leads directly to the last failure of technology and progress: They haven’t made us any happier. In fact, there are numerous indications that the more industrialized and technologized the world gets, the less happy people become. But progress works like any other addiction, in that as it makes us more and more miserable, it also makes us more and more afraid to be without it. This is virtually the definition of how an addiction works, is it not?

What are the key factors that make human beings happy?

This is, in a sense, the most important – yet probably least asked and discussed – question of our times. So I will speak to it in detail in my next entry. The failure to look closely at this question is part of what makes it possible for technology to get away with marching forward, even when it is destroying our health, our land, and our communities.

The transition we have to make in the decades ahead will be, in many respects, a painful one, but it also has the potential, ironically, to be a transition back to a happiness, a subject to which I will soon return.