The Exploitation Of Progress

Rev. Douglas A Taylor


As much as I don’t like to admit it, I have more in common with the generalizations about my generation than otherwise.  Whenever possible I like to think that because I married and had children at a young age I have somehow jumped off the main track, and am therefore outside the standard by which my generation is labeled.  Add to that our decision to home school and my vocation in Unitarian Universalist ministry, I like to think I’ve neatly side-stepped every possible stereotype or generalization about any group with which I am associated.  But it’s just not true.  I am a member of the Generation X according to most definitions.  I missed the tail end of being a Baby Boomer by just a few years.  Generation X, according to most definitions, starts a year or two before 1970 and goes through 1980 or maybe 1985.  There is some contention about the dates and who really fits where, but generally, we come in right after the Baby Boomers wrap up.  When you hear people talking about “Young Adults” age 18 – 35 or age 24 – 35, that’s where the Generation X is right now.

The main point of drawing generational boundaries is to be able to catagorize the different groups and make generalizations about them, whether accurate or not, so marketers will know who their target audience is.  “GenXers” are characterized as politically disengaged and socially apathetic.  Not that they are overly materialistic and money-hungry though, they seem to be ambivalent in that race as well.  Analysis of what is behind this characteristic of disengagement tends to turn up essays about cynicism and distrust of the social and political systems.

So this is where I find myself connecting with the other people in my generation.  I identify with the motivation for the disengagement even though I am not disengaged.  I recognize within myself the frustration slouching toward apathy in regard to the dysfunctional government which is “serving” the American people today.  And though it be tempered by my faith in humanity, I know the impulse to write off the majority of society as a assemblage of self-absorbed materialistic people who are overly-focused on whatever their televisions tell them is important.  The stereotypical perspective of a GenXer is quite jaded and not altogether hopeful.

And yet there is something to that point of view.  It does seem like at some point the lofty ideals of independence, self-rule and the American Dream became a base desire on the part of each individual just to “get my share and then some.”  The high ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness became truncated into just the unfettered pursuit of happiness, (except what constitutes “happiness” is more and more regularly defined for us by interest groups and product marketers.)   I have days when I really do think like this.  The cynicism has a certain attractiveness.  Thankfully days like these are rare, but they do occur.  Usually, I waver around a more nuanced and realistic (though admittedly hopeful) impression of our current situation.

And then we bump into a holiday for flag-waving and store-wide sales of specially marked items.  We bump into Columbus day.  I bump into Columbus day with that Generation X-style jaded view.  It seems to me there are certain holidays on the calender that serve only two functions, they create an extra long weekend and an opportunity for stores to have a sale.  The distinctive purposes of these “lesser” holidays seems to have faded in the mind of the average consumer.  But these holidays did each have, at one point, a reason.  Columbus Day is intended to be a celebration remembering the great accomplishments of Christopher Columbus who discovered the New World.  I bump into Columbus Day and recall its distinctive purpose with a good bit of ambivalence.

Columbus, or at least the history book version of Columbus, embodies many of the reasons for my generations critical dissatisfaction with politics and society.  Columbus sailed across the Atlantic in search of the eastern shores of Asia.  He arrived among what we now know as the Caribbean Islands, though to his death he contended that he had landed on the islands just east of Asia.  He established the first lasting European presence in the Americas and started the flow of materials across the ocean between the New and Old Worlds.  He also brought Spanish colonialism and war to the native peoples as well as European strains of disease.  And within a few short years, there was also a standard form of European feudalism in which the native population were the peasantry.  Within a generation whole tribes were wiped out, untold numbers of people dead or subjected to Spain’s imperialistic desires.

The legacy of Christopher Columbus demonstrates how the noble goal of discovery can result in an egregious transgression against humanity.  He was a child of his times and he carried the conqueror’s ideology in his heart.  He saw his actions as progress.  He not only opened up the lands for new settlement and new resources for the old country, he did so for God and King.  Today, with an appreciation of the consequences of his actions, it is difficult to still honor the good and heroic elements of his story.  But I shall not attempt to redeem him this morning.  That is neither my task nor my wish.  Instead, Columbus Day Weekend is the starting point for my jaded, though hopeful, reflections on progress and discovery and the ways in which good ideas can sometimes become tools of destruction.

I was reminded of a bit of wisdom when I read the Letters to the Editor in yesterday’s paper. These are the “things that destroy us: politics without principle; pleasure without conscience; wealth without work; knowledge without character; business without morality; science without humanity and worship without sacrifice.  At least it is something to think about.”  I would add ‘progress and discovery without regard for consequences’ to that list this morning.  The way we go about discovering and progressing is in a significant way, more important than the discovery or the progress.

Personal progress is easy to get a handle on.  It typically involves making more money, or getting a better education or a job promotion (which usually means making more money.)  A broader sense of progress, progress as a society, is a little harder to define and measure; but it can be done.  Societal progress has been defined differently by different societies and at different times.  In the Middle-Ages, societal progress was defined as moral progress and the church was afforded enormous powers.  In Columbus’s time it was defined as the spread of Christianity and Kingdoms.  When the United States was formed people saw our salvation in a pure democratic government.  We considered ourselves on the cutting edge of progress because we had the best form of government.  At other times in our history military might, or education, or financial prosperity were the measure of progress.  Lately it seems technology has been where much of our energy has gone.  If only we could break through the next level of technological advance, (this line of thinking tells us,) we, as a people, will experience such progress.  As computers get smaller, buildings get bigger, and cell phones expand options and extras, the potential for progress is blooming!

At least, that is what we tell ourselves.  But I wonder, have we hit upon another moment where we are neglecting consequences, blinded by the dazzling possibilities of technological progress?  Now, I’m not a Ludite, I do believe technology has given and continues to give us great things and much progress.  Advances in medical technology and in the information sciences are amazing.  It is hard to argue against these advances.  This is progress.

The positive and negative consequences of some areas of advancement are not so clear.  There are some things which I hesitate to complain against, but still wonder about.  The ‘spell check’ on my word processor is a really wonderful technology, but I wonder if I might have become a better speller as an adult if I didn’t have ‘spell check.’  Did this progress of technology somehow stifle my growth?  This is but a minor curiosity rather than a concern of any significance.  There are more interesting and significant issues available.

Cloning and genetic modification are areas of progress which are still getting debate.  The realistic consequences of cloning are likely much tamer than the predictions made by Science Fiction novelists and conspiracy theory afficionados.  And yet I wonder if we could tinker with our genetic make-up to the point that we create something other than human.  Because I trust that if we could, some attempt would be made at it.  I’m not sure what it would take for genetic tinkering to cross that line, this may be the next great battleground between science and religion (or among religions.)  For now the possibilities offer much good as we progress along in this field of science.  However, the consequences of this are not fully realized, we would do well to proceed with care.

Other examples of technological progress with mixed blessings, both inane like spell check and profound like cloning, abound.  Certainly technology is not the only area of progress to be concerned over.  We’ve been eroding our environmental treasures in the name of progress for many decades.  The old Joni Mitchell tune “big Yellow Taxi” which starts out “Paved paradise, put up a parking lot,” was a big hit again recently.  The message still resonates.  Many families have both parents working, not for equality or independence on the part of one spouse or the other, but simply to make ends meet.  Then day care centers do a significant amount of the raising of our children and we call it progress.  But all this is not quite what I am after this morning.  I don’t worry about major ethical questions created from social or scientific progress because I know they will be debated and explored.  What has me upset is the lack of conversation around what all this progress has done to the general attitude of our society.

The idea of progress is so alluring.  We love to have progress.  One could almost say our most remarkable progress is in the area of progress itself.  We have so much of it now.  And here is where I think we bump into trouble: We have so much progress so quickly.  We have become impatient for progress.  We don’t like to wait.  The book, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything by James Gleick talks about this sort of thing.  He makes the point that people who design new technologies know that the public is impatient for the next new thing.

New roads aren’t being built fast enough to meet the volume of traffic or anticipated traffic, and we are impatient about the roads rather than wondering why we all need so many cars.  Fast food restaurants, (and I’m using the term ‘restaurant’ loosely here,) have sometimes set up express lanes, and people grow impatient at how long it takes to get through the drive-thru; but only recently have we begun to wonder about the American trend toward obesity and unhealthy diets. Cell phones and computers are outdated within a year or less after they hit the market.  And people are used to this now and accept it.  Indeed some are impatient at how slow new stuff comes available.  We think we have progress; but as Gleick tries to tease out in his book, in the name of progress, our shared cultural values have become efficiency and convenience.  (So much for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)  We talk about how the latest new batch of technological gizmos are great because they either are smaller or work faster.  They are efficient.  They make us efficient.  They are convenient.  In some senses they make us convenient.

When societal progress was measured by our moral progress, the dominant social values were piety and charity.  When it was measured by our governmental progress, the dominant social values were a strong work ethic and staunch independence.  Now we find ourselves measuring our progress as a society by how portable our computers are and how many different ringer songs we can program into our cell phones.  Our dominant social values seem to be efficiency and progress.  We find ourselves caught in a cycle of wanting faster connections and more information more quickly, so we enlist the aid of a number of time-saving devices and convenient technologies.  But instead of getting relief, these only heighten our need for more.  Insatiable impatience is one of the major consequences of this progress.

Now really!  What is the rush?  Surely there are more important things in our lives besides efficiency.  I sometimes wish I could issue a nationwide mandatory deep breath.  I recently taught Piran, our toddler, to take a deep breath.  He’ll be running around the room and getting wound up right before bed time, and I’ll get his attention and then do this (deep breath.)  Then he’ll look at me with a big grin like this is a new game and he’ll go (deep breath.)  It works.  He actually calms down.  Unfortunately, a communal deep breath would only help for a short time if at all.  But that may just be the jaded and cynical interpretation common to my generation coming out.  There has been, after all, a documented increase in religion and spirituality.  Maybe our society is trying to find a way to take a communal deep breath.  Maybe we are trying to figure out how to slow down.

Perhaps the best help for this situation, this seemingly unnoticed increase in impatience and its connection to our progress, would be to look to some of the other values in our society and try to encourage those.  Maybe the best any of us can do is recognize when we feel trapped in the impatience born of progress and take that deep breath or help someone else to.  It’s worth a try.

In a World without end,

May it be so