Originally published on G. Michael Rapp’s blog, “The Pipeline,” on 20 Feb. 2019.
The 19th century was a time of great scientific advances in Europe and America. The innovations that resulted contributed to a feeling that it was a good time to be alive and that mankind’s lot was generally improving. The applications saved labour, improved health, enhanced communications and shrank distances. With the coming of the war, the dark side of science was given free expression, becoming death-dealing instead of life-enhancing. — Patrick Bishop, “Killing Machines: Weapons of the First World War”
When I was growing up, I watched reruns of the Jetsons, with episodes containing fantastic technologies and lifestyles that were dreamlike. However, I am also old enough to remember 9/11. (I say old enough, because I have students who weren’t even born yet, when 9/11 took place.) These two memories from my past shine brightly in the hazy darkness of my mind, contradicting one another. On one side, you have the bright, shining lie: Technology, that is, progress, will lead to better things. On the other side, you have the cold, hard truth: Technology, i.e., progress, doesn’t always result in the Jetsons universe. In fact, the succeeding nineteen years taught me, and everyone else, that progress was a myth, packaged and sold to all of us. Things didn’t seem to get better, at least in the grand scheme of things. Although things did get better, such as better gas mileage, better batteries, cooler phones, faster computers, etc., they didn’t have that same shiny exterior we were sold by the Jetsons. Instead, we seemed to be cheated out of our slice of the progress pie.
One could argue that I am not giving progress the benefit of the doubt. In other words, I am being one-sided in my argument. It is true that science and technology have helped to eliminate or at least mitigate some of the worst problems known to humanity. Things like clean water are becoming increasingly available to even the poorest of people in the world. Moreover, food crises are becoming less and less prevalent. These are true. However, with these movements forward, we seem to be stepping backward as well.
Technology and scientific advancements are still held by the wealthiest of nations, companies, and individuals. They are not being distributed among the wider global public. In fact, information, which supposedly flows free, despite resistance, isn’t flowing free to the hands of those who need it most. There is a cost to progress. The cost being what we pay for bandwidth to access the information we so desperately need. The cost is in the medications we buy, especially here in the United States. The cost of progress comes with large government subsidies to corporations that rarely, if ever, need said subsidies. Progress, in other words, is bought and sold to us like any other product in the capitalist machine. Progress is, in fact, a brand. Something that can be copyrighted, trademarked, fought over in the courts, and, of course, package, marketed, and sold to those sheep (i.e., most of us) who want to believe we are getting in on the ground floor of Progress.
When the Arab Spring occurred, many of us celebrated the potential changes that might occur for millions of people living in abject poverty, under authoritarian conditions. What we didn’t know, or at least we pretended we didn’t know, was that large corporations, many of the same corporations touting American democracy and its way of life, sold dictators and their goons the technology to spy on their own people, to shut down the Internet, and to clamp down when things got out of hand. In other words, the very progress we have seen stateside, that is, technological improvements in software, among other things, were being used to crush the will of sovereign peoples everywhere in the Middle East. It is no wonder that people chose extremism over democracy and fair and open societies.
Although technology and science have indeed improved the lot for humankind, they have also forced us to reconsider what progress means. To me, a child of the 1990s and 2000s, progress has a very different tinge. It no longer resembles the Jetsons. Instead, it reminds me, more and more, of Iraq (2003-Present), Afghanistan (2001-Present), Syria (2009-Present), and the U.S.-Mexico border (?-Present). It is the planes that flew into the Twin Towers. It is the expensive iPhone I bought, which happened to be made with cheap labor from China. Progress is seeing Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, not as an icon, but as a robber baron, who didn’t give two shits about the common rabble.