Recently, I was having breakfast with a friend who has just returned from yet another country where he routinely explains to presidents and prime ministers how to establish telecommunications networks or to telecommunication leaders how to maintain their 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. It’s a questionable value judgment when applied to societies, economies, environments and cultures. The right term to use is “change.” What effusive gurus market to us as “progress” is usually little more than “change.” Over time, we judge a specific change 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. The debut of the electric car may signal a welcome end to our dependence on oil, but may radically change world politics by enthroning countries with rare lithium deposits. We may also find ourselves awash in heavy metal discards from millions of depleted batteries.
We continually confuse change and progress. My friend showed me the wonders of his new 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 attributable 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. Only 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 can we express our creativity and ideas.
It’s easy enough to live in the noise of our own existence. Similarly, more technologies will arrive so we can check email or Bloomberg while snowshoeing in Yellowstone. Pharmaceutical giants will introduce more drugs to escape the physical and emotional pain of normal human existence. Only when we turn quietly inward or to a good friend will we know the difference between progress and simple change.