Hi there. Welcome to this week’s 1-2-3 Tech Miscellany — the newsletter crying out for a new name (if only I could make up my mind). Here’s this week’s ditty — an essay on the myth of progress.
Reading time: 5 minutes
Part 1 - Essay
The Lodestar To A Slowdown
Manifest Destiny by John Gast
The origins of human progress stretches back 50,000 years to the invention of hunting technologies and survival strategies. With pointier weapons and sharper minds, our Stone Age brethren progressed from killing, not just one wooly mammoth at a time, but scores of them. Remnants of industrial-scale slaughter sites contain evidence of hundreds of animals being trapped in valleys or driven off cliffs.
Ingenious methods, no doubt — if you fancy stuffing you’re face today. Not so smart if you’re planning to eat tomorrow though. Within 100 Years, we’d hunted magnificent megafauna out of existence. Giant wombats, saber-toothed tigers and wooly rhinos — all wiped out in an ecological blitzkrieg.
Today, we’ve sharper minds and even pointier weapons, but we’re still pathologically prone to short-term thinking. Politicians look to the next election, businesses are slaves to their quarterly reports, while nations bicker over their short-term interests. Our culture of instant gratification reflects this short-termism too — fast food and the 'buy now' button, are constant reminders we live in "the tyranny of the now.”
Meanwhile the planet burns and species vanish.
Progress Is King
The widespread faith in progress as a goal for humanity is perfectly understandable. Compared to the grinding poverty of the Middle Ages, the material benefits it has produced over the past 200 years are an extraordinary achievement. - Roman Krznaric
While continuous economic growth and modernisation have lifted millions out of poverty, today it’s clear, locking the pursuit of material progress into a finite energy system won't work forever.
But for now, we’re primed to follow defaults.
Progress it seems, is still king! And who can blame us, we’re so bloody busy? It’s comforting to be able to move through life, slipping seamlessly from one thing to the next. We’re grateful for creature comforts, even when we don’t like them — One less thing to worry about.
It’s also hard to consider alternatives, when modernity surrounds and suffocates us. Daily fluctuations of the stock market, the frenzied rush of clearance sales and social media skewing our view of reality, can all make life overwhelming!
Still, we remain hopeful. Material progress will see us right.
Time To Think
But this comfort is dangerous. Philosopher Hannah Arendt cautions that it blinds us to the world in front of us. She wants us to stop and think.
Could the activity of thinking be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing? - Hannah Arendt
Nice things today, can be destructive tomorrow:
200 million trees are cut down ever year just to deal with US ecommerce returns.
The splay of suburban shopping centres is wrecking communities.
In some ways the pandemic has indeed forced us to stop and think. Routine activities we took for granted now require patience — opening doors, navigating a busy street, meeting friends for a drink. Where previously we overfilled our time, Covid-19 came along and emptied everything out, leaving more time for reflection.
So maybe the absence of the pitter-patter of everyday life — the very thing we’ve all been longing for since the start of this pandemic — is awakening in us to the possibilities of a better, slower and simpler pace of life.
Pre-pandemic, humans were already slowing down — albeit slowly — in many other ways too:
Population growth has been declining since 1968.
Countries are experimenting with four-day work weeks and Universal Basic Income.
Viable alternatives to our fixation with GDP and incessant growth are emerging.
Think of the relief! With a slowdown we can:
Stop expecting ceaseless technological revolutions.
Shift away from our obsession with change, innovation and discovery as unalloyed positives.
Find ample time to spend it on things that really matter.
Give our planet respite to evolve, as life on earth has evolved for three billion years, “toward ever greater diversity, elegance and beauty.”
This is an idealistic vision, I agree, but it's a worth considering nonethless.
Whether you agree with it or not, it can still serve as a reminder: No matter how bad things get, things are always changing. And this spells an opportunity — a chance to spark the imagination and struggle for a different kind of future, however you might imagine it.
I just hope it's a slower one.
Part 2 - Good News
Conjuring Water Out Of Thin Air
“They’re our neighbours and it’s a great pity to look at them suffering from such severe water shortages.” An Israeli company is helping Gaza, by donating generators that extract drinking water out of moisture in the air.
A Runway Success
When the runway lights failed at the airfield near a remote Alaskan town, the air ambulance couldn't land. Still in their pyjamas, residents scrambled to line up their cars along the landing strip, illuminating it so the medevac plane could save a child’s life.
Part 3 - Random Bits
A brief history of climate change via desktop wallpapers. Source.
A tree in my neighbourhood is getting plenty of iron in its diet.
That’s my lot for this week. Stay safe — Scott