We in America have a lot of faith in technological progress. Chances are, most people will tell you that we’re better off now than we were 50 years ago. The world is a better place, we like to think, because of our latest and greatest inventions.
A healthy optimism is all well and good, but we’re deluding ourselves: Technology hasn’t improved the world like we think it has. This myth of progress, fueled by technological advances, is both misplaced and problematic. We see the immediacy of technological change in our own lives, but despite the unprecedented rate of innovation, quality of life isn’t improving globally. Technology is just making life a whole lot easier for those lucky enough to have access to it.
Falling prey to the myth of progress can carry steep consequences, blinding us to the real, pressing issues of the world. To define progress in exclusively technological terms is to remove the focus from the problems that really need our attention, like global hunger and poverty. Rather than defining progress by the newest metal rectangle to come off of Apple’s production line, we would do better to focus on widespread, global improvements in the quality of human life.
I can’t be a complete Luddite and claim that technology is harmful and regressive. Personally, I would be reluctant to surrender the cell phone and laptop that have become daily fixtures of college life. On a grander scale, technological advances have allowed us to feed more people, extend the length of human life and connect people around the world in astounding ways. Reverting back to pre-Internet, pre-modern medicine days would hardly be desirable for anyone. Technology has undoubtedly contributed to progress in certain areas of the world, but there is a danger in including only these advances in our definition of progress.
From my admittedly naïve, privileged college student perspective, the problem is rooted in a failure to connect technological progress to meaningful improvements in human life on a global scale. This can breed complacency toward more pressing, unaddressed problems. While we see progress in the newest photo-sharing app, many people around the world believe progress means easier access to the food and medicine they need just to live. Being on the receiving end of technological improvements, it’s easy to forget about the majority of the world’s population who are largely excluded from reaping the benefits of recent “progress.”
With a considerable amount of new technology accessible only by those in wealthy countries, technological progress can contribute to the increasing division of global society into the haves and have-nots. While our lives become more convenient, we ignore 85 percent of the world’s people who live in developing countries. Excluding this substantial majority from our definition of progress results in a greatly divided and inequitable world.
Changing the way we measure progress might require us to add a moral dimension to our definition. In his diary about life in a work camp during World War II, Langdon Gilkey states that “technological advance spells ‘progress’ only if men are in fact rational and good.” When man defines progress in terms of self-interest, he notes, we risk being sent on a crash course towards the fictional dystopian societies like those described in “Brave New World” and “1984.”
Technology doesn’t have to be a divisive force. We aren’t on an irreversible trajectory toward a real-life “Brave New World.” In fact, when properly used, it has the power to unite us around a common goal of human betterment. The focus just needs to shift away from convenience and limited accessibility and toward tangible gains in quality of life for those who need it the most. Technology can make the world a better place, so long as we invest in technologies that will produce measurable improvements on a global scale. This isn’t a myth: This is progress.