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Life Studies: Rethinking Progress

A scientist-novelist looks at technology's legacy and warns of its effects on the quality of human life.

A scientist-novelist looks askance at technology's legacy

Over the past several years, friends and colleagues have become increasingly irritated with me for not being on the electronic network. Scientists want to send me their data on E-mail. Secretaries for distant committees, forced to resort to the telephone, hound me for my E-mail address and lapse into stunned silence when I allow that I don't have one. University administrators, who organize meetings and send messages across campus at the push of a button, grumble about hand-carrying information to me or, even worse, putting paper in an envelope and sending it through the interdepartmental-mail system. I admit I'm a nuisance. But I resist getting on the Internet as a matter of principle, as a last holdout against the onslaught of unbridled technology galloping almost blindly into the 21st century.

For at least the past 200 years, human society has operated under the assumption that all developments in science and technology constitute progress. According to that view, if a new metal alloy can increase the transmission of data from 10 million bits per second to 20 million, we should create it. If a new plastic has twice the strength-to-weight ratio as the older variety, we should produce it. If a new automobile can accelerate at twice the rate of the current model, we should build it. Whatever is technologically possible will find an application and improve us.

The ordained imperative of advancing technology was probably thrust on its course at the start of the Industrial Revolution, although the idea must have had some velocity before then. As everyone knows, new technology in the 18th century, such as the power loom and the steam engine, dramatically improved the efficiency of production, with the associated financial rewards. Power looms enabled textile workers to perform at 10 or more times their previous rate -- and the machines never grew tired. Steam engines, which could produce up to 100 times as much power per weight as humans and oxen, transformed England into an industrial and economic giant. With such outcomes, it was natural to equate technology with progress.

But that equation expressed far more than the obvious connection between technology and material improvement. The concept of progress was a major intellectual and cultural theme of the last century, fueled not only by the Industrial Revolution but also by the new theory of evolution. Many scientists and nonscientists of that period interpreted biological evolution as a kind of progress from lower forms to higher, culminating in human beings. By extension they believed that natural (biological) and human-made (technological) forces were together causing society to become more developed, more organized, and more moral with time. Progress was part of our manifest destiny. Writers, philosophers, and social thinkers, as well as scientists and engineers, took up those more general ideas. Following the ideals of the Enlightenment, progress necessarily included social and political advances too. For example, Edward Bellamy's classic novel Looking Backward (1888), set in Boston, describes an ideal social and industrial system of the future.

In the 20th century the concept of progress changed, becoming increasingly tied to technology and large dehumanized technological systems. By the time of the 1939 World's Fair, in New York, one could read the following in the promotional literature of the futuristic General Motors exhibit: "Since the beginning of civilization, transportation and communication have been keys to Man's progress, his prosperity, his happiness." In one fell swoop, technology, progress, and happiness had become bound in a compelling dream of the future.

Today, at the end of the 20th century, a crucial question before us is whether developments in technology inevitably improve the quality of life. And if not, we must ask how our society can employ some selectivity and restraint, given the enormous capitalistic forces at work. That is a terribly difficult problem for several reasons, not the least of which is the subjective nature of progress and quality of life. Is progress greater human happiness? Greater comfort? Greater speed in personal transportation and communication? The reduction of human suffering? Longer life span? Even with a definition of progress, its measurements and technological requirements are not straightforward. If progress is human happiness, has anyone shown that 20th-century people are happier than 19th-century people? If progress is comfort, how do we weigh the short-term comfort of air-conditioning against the long-term comfort of a pollution-free environment? If progress is longer life span, can we ever discontinue life support for a dying patient in pain?

Only a fool would claim that new technology rarely improves the quality of life. The electric light has expanded innumerable human activities, from reading to nighttime athletic events. Advances in medicine -- particularly the germ theory of disease, public-health programs, and the development of good antiseptics -- have obviously reduced physical suffering and substantially extended the healthy human life span.

But one can also argue that advances in technology do not always improve life. I will skip over such obvious environmental problems as global warming, ozone depletion, and nuclear-waste disposal, and consider something more subtle: high-speed communications. We are already seeing people at restaurants talking into cellular phones as they dine. Others take modems on vacations, so they can stay in touch with their offices at all times. Or consider E-mail, the example I began with. E-mail has undeniable benefits. It is faster than regular mail and cheaper and less obtrusive than the telephone. It can promote conversations among far-flung communities of people, and it can encourage otherwise reticent talkers to speak up, via computer terminals. But E-mail, in my view, also contributes to the haste, the thoughtlessness, and the artificial urgency that increasingly characterize our world. The daily volume of E-mail communications is inflating without limit. A lawyer friend says he spends 50% of his time at work sifting through unimportant E-mail messages to arrive at the few that count. Some communications are invariably of the form "Please ignore my last message." Evidently, it has become so easy and fast to communicate that we often do so without reflection. When messages come in so quickly and effortlessly, we irresistibly and immediately respond in kind. Although I cannot document it, I suspect that bad decisions are being made because of the haste of transmitting and responding to E-mail messages. But more to the point is the overall fast-food mentality at work in the rapid conveyance of our thoughts and responses. We are suffocating ourselves. We are undercutting our contemplative powers. We could even be, ironically, impeding progress.

E-mail, of course, is only one example. Its use or abuse is up to the individual. But E-mail is representative of other technological developments, such as genetic engineering, throw-away plastics, advanced life-support systems, and computer networks. Certainly, many of those developments will have good consequences. But that is not the point. Modern technology is racing forward with little examination or control. To be sure, a number of thinkers and writers have for some time expressed alarm over where unchecked science and technology might be taking us. Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein (1818), was certainly concerned about the ethical dilemmas of artificial life. So was H. G. Wells in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), wherein the evil surgeon, Dr. Moreau, synthesizes creatures that are half man and half beast. In Walden (1854), Thoreau wrote, "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us." A more recent example is Don DeLillo's White Noise (1985), in which the hero is exposed to a cloud of poisonous industrial chemicals, and then suffers a far worse, mental ailment because of a computerized medical system that constantly announces his fate. But those countervailing voices have, for the most part, been ignored. That is not just because of the considerable economic forces that are propelling today's ravenous technological engine. Rather, we seem to believe -- perhaps at some subconscious level -- that technology is our sacred future.

I am not in favor of squashing new developments in pure science, in any form. The act of understanding the workings of nature -- and our place in it -- expresses for me what is most noble and good in us. As for the applications of science, I am certainly not opposed to technology as a whole; I benefit greatly from it. But we cannot have advances in technology without an accompanying consideration of human values and quality of life.

How should this examination and questioning proceed? I don't know. It is not likely that government regulations would be effective. Our government, as well as other large institutions, understandably has an investment in allowing technology to develop unabated. The problem cannot be solved from the top down. It is a cultural problem. Perhaps we must regulate ourselves. Perhaps we each must think about what is truly important in our lives and decide which technologies to accept and which to resist. That is a personal responsibility. In the long run, we need to change our thinking, to realize that we are not only a society of production and technology but also a society of human beings.

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Alan Lightman is a professor of science and writing, and a senior lecturer in physics, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass. A novelist, he is the author of Einstein's Dreams and Good Benito.

Last updated: Sep 15, 1995

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