March 26, 2014
The West has long had an ambivalent relationship with progress. As Freud famously wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, "the price of progress in civilization is paid in forfeiting happiness." But for every Freud who questioned the value of progress, ten others embraced it. Just listen to Walter Ehret's 1950s ode "My Country Tis of Thee," which includes the stanzas, "There was no stopping a nation of tinkerers and whittlers, long accustomed to making, repairing, improving and changing," and "Progress! That was the word that made the century turn."
Unfortunately, over the last several decades America has become more like Freud and less like Ehret, in the sense that there's now widespread opposition to progress. Today, the dominant response to new technologies -- from nanotechnology to biotech and the Internet -- is opposition and fear rather than support and confidence.
Since the first Industrial Revolution, technological change has brought disruption and progress, with the disrupted often rejecting that change. Most famously, in the early 1800s a group of Englishmen called Luddites destroyed textile machines that were replacing hand-operated looms. But if progress has sometimes been a dubious, if not rejected, value in nations, America was always different. Founded by risk-takers and optimists, Americans have long thought that newer is better and that you can't stand in the way of progress. Other nations, constrained by the shackles of the past and the resisters of the present, have viewed that American spirit as simply extraordinary. Even Joseph Stalin proclaimed: "American efficiency is that indomitable spirit which neither knows nor will be deterred by any obstacle... that simply must go through with a job once it has been tackled."
[Innovation is disruptive. Deal with it. Read Creative Destruction Of Internet Age: Unstoppable.]
Today, however, increasingly vocal neo-Luddites in this country argue that progress is a force to be stopped, not encouraged. They want a world in which a worker never loses a job, even when the new technology behind it leads to higher employment; a world in which consumer rights trump all other considerations, even lower prices; a world in which no personal information is shared, even if sharing benefits individuals and companies alike. In short, they want to slow advancement at all costs, even when those costs ultimately hurt the public they're trying to protect.
We can forgive the average American for believing this narrative, given the many influential advocacy groups, media outlets, and academics that promote this view of the world. "60 Minutes" and the Associated Press have featured stories on the perils of automation, and prominent academics, including MIT's Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson, are telling us that machines kill jobs, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Numerous media outlets have also taken up the false argument that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous and should be curbed or banned. One example is the "balanced" PBS documentary "Seeds of Death." And almost all coverage of new information technology comes with the obligatory "this is the end of privacy as we know it" warning.
What has changed? At least three things:
First, we're seeing the spread of foundation-funded advocacy groups -- the likes of the Sierra Club, Free Press, and the ridiculously misnamed Center for Food Safety -- whose mission is to challenge technological progress on behalf of those purportedly hurt by it. These groups rely on fear-mongering to retain their foundation funding and drum up their grassroots donations. Even technologies as straightforward and benign as smart electric meters now mobilize neo-Luddite opposition from groups such as the cleverly named stopsmartmeters.org, in the name of protecting consumers' privacy.
Second, academics realize that the key to making a name for themselves is to write the "dog bites man" article or book that tells us why Google is making us stupid, why we are losing the war against machines, how we are now a "captive audience" to broadband providers, and why we need to fear what the Internet is doing to our brains.
I risk sounding old-fashioned, but when I received my PhD in the 1980s, academics were expected to leave bias and advocacy to the amateurs. Their job was to strive for objectivity. But objectivity no longer sells or gets you that coveted TED Talk.
Third, the media face the same market pressures as civil society groups and academics. They maximize the number of eyeballs on their content when they portray technology as fearsome and imposed by powerful, impersonal governments and corporations.
As the neo-Luddites drown out the voices of progress, the ability of true progressives (i.e., those individuals and organizations advancing progress) to drive development is diminished. It is unlikely, for example, that America will ever again lead the world in funding science and technology. We now rank 24th out of 39 nations in government-funded university research, behind the likes of South Korea, France, and Estonia. It is also unlikely that we will be able to enact sophisticated national innovation policies, such as those created by Denmark and Germany. There's too much mistrust of government in the US for that. Where we could still trump other nations is in our unalloyed embrace of progress, but we're at risk of losing our American exceptionalism as we become cautious and fearful. Ned Ludd would be proud.
It's time for true progressives of all political stripes to unite to reject neo-Ludditism in all its forms, to promote innovation and technology as a source of societal good, and to unabashedly embrace progress as a central tenet of success in the 21st century.
Note: If you want to assess your own view on progress, comparing yourself to others, take ITIF's progress test at www.doyoulikeprogress.org.
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