Looking back to look forward
I hope, dear readers, you have enjoyed my column this year as I ventured into new territory on the impact of technology on human well-being. By warning about the potential downsides of technological progress, I put myself in the company of a long line of doomsday-prophesying naysayers from across history. It is easy to make fun of the naysayers. There are always those who are afraid of progress, but in the end isn’t the world better today than it has ever been?
Yes and no.First of all, progress is not inherently positive. Evidence suggests, for example, that human well-being probably went down and not up when we transitioned from being hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic age to being agricultural farmers in the Neolithic age.
Paleolithic man was more likely to be injured on a hunt, but the life expectancy of a Neolithic farmer was actually much shorter. Their more sedentary agricultural lifestyle exposed them to greater risks of famine (due to unexpected climate incidents), war (now that there was more property to fight over), and disease (due to closer prolonged contact with livestock).
So why would agriculture continue to evolve if it did not improve human well-being? The simple answer is, there was no way to go back. It only takes a couple of generations to lose the hunting and gathering knowledge that had been passed down for generations. Once progress happens, it’s hard to undo.
And while agricultural life may have had a negative net impact on human well-being, it was a lot easier for settlers to have and raise children, and through those new generations, the agricultural revolution took over the world.
Now, looking back, we can say that humanity has come a long way in addressing the problems of famine and disease (and war, some might argue, albeit controversially). Most of us would agree that modern life is far better than the nomadic life of a hunter-gatherer or the meager life of a subsistence farmer. But Paleolithic man might not agree. He would likely be shocked and appalled by what we have done to the planet and would see modern humans as slaves to our corporations and our machines.
Finally, even modern man, who fully enjoys the fruits of all of our newfound technology, can also recognize that progress has come at some cost. We bemoan the impact of the industrial age on our planet, the loss of a connection with nature, the diminishing of family values and the reduction in leisure time.
It is true that our future progeny will likely embrace the automated, virtual, cybernetic future, whatever that may be, as progress. They will, after all, have forgotten how to live life without technology and will, therefore, have no way to go back. But like our Paleolithic ancestors of millennia ago, who dragged their feet into the agricultural revolution, the Homo sapiens of today may not approve of what we will become.
Today, we stand at the brink of a new revolution. With one foot in the old world and one in the new, we have the opportunity to see both what is coming, and what we are leaving behind. Unlike our primitive ancestors, we know more about the world than ever before. We can learn from the mistakes of our past and anticipate the challenges in our future. Paleolithic man had no choice but to be swept along with the tide of history. But modern man can choose. Do we accept the current pace of technological evolution as an inevitability? Or do we slow it down so that we can better assess the impact on humanity?
At the very least, we should be asking these questions...despite the risk of being labeled the naysayer.
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