I’m having breakfast with a friend who has just returned from yet another country where he routinely explains to presidents and kings how to establish functioning telecommunications networks, or to telecommunication company presidents how to maintain customers with practical value rather than with a leg-hold trap.
We had one of our meal-bridging conversations about progress and largely agreed that progress is pretty much limited to technology and scientific discovery. Progress becomes a questionable value judgment when applied to societies, economies, environments and cultures. The right term in those realms is change. What effusive gurus market to us as progress is usually little more than change. Over time, we judge changes as beneficial or deleterious.
Preventing Alzheimer’s disease might be progress, whereas the discovery of nuclear energy is change that could offer mankind energy and environmental progress or oblivion, depending on our use of it.
We conflate change and progress continually. He showed me the wonders of his iPad. Since owning it, he has written a book on it and read several dozen others. He communicates on it with Gmail and Skype. He watches art films on it and presents the hundreds of professional nature photographs he has taken in his travels to would-be buyers like National Graphic, a miracle tool.
We also discussed the profusion of addictive, digital inanity that our countless handheld technologies present us with 24/7. We talked about the “say it and it’s true” phenomenon, ideological echo chambers and the disappearance of newspapers that use to pay fact checkers and editors to ensure that what we read reflected reality and was attributed to real people.
We talked about the disappearance of understatement, modesty and nuance and the explosion of neurotic, self-obsessed media that assumes anyone should care. We talked about in-your-face, self-referential Facebook pages, and finally agreed that creativity and innovation come from a quiet place inside us that we could only hear when all the supposed instruments of progress are powered down.
For some it is the aubade of an early morning, for others the sidereal night when we are filled with silence and experience the solitude of our existence in the world. When it is quiet enough to hear the voice within us, to let ideas and emotions take shape and begin to subject them to expression in voice, writing, song or art.
We can live easily enough in the noise of our own existence. More technologies will debut so we can check email, eBay or Bloomberg while snowshoeing in Yellowstone. Similarly, pharmaceutical companies will introduce more drugs to escape the physical and emotional pain of normal human existence.
How much of this “progress” will yield change for the better depends on us and our willingness to retain and express our humanity.