This Is Not What Real Progress Looks Like
Tech billionaires are modern snake oil salesmen
Tech billionaires are modern snake oil salesmen
A few years ago, I was hanging out on Bardsey Island, a beautiful and mystical island off northwest Wales, said to be the resting place of Merlin and/or King Arthur. Over 20,000 pilgrims are buried on the island, plus it’s home to 200 seals, some Neolithic ruins, and some of the prettiest sunsets on the British Isles.
Only four people lived on the island full-time, and one of them showed me a museum-verified sixth century brooch she found on one of her daily walks. As I held the tiny piece in my hand, I marveled at how beautifully-crafted it was. So fine, so precise. How the heck did they have that kind of technology in this remote place 1,500 years ago?
It got me thinking about today's billionaires, all promising to be our lords and saviors through the miracles of technology.
Don’t place your faith in their false gospel.
Steve Jobs “changed the world”, but he didn’t really make it better. I don’t know anyone who’s happier and healthier and more whole now that we live in the age of addictive social media, push notifications, hardcore porn, hookup culture, bingey streamers, algorithmic trading, fast food delivery, surveillance capitalism, and a 24/7 news cycle that keeps our digital nervous system in a constant state of fight or flight.
“But an iPhone is like a computer and watch and GPS combined!”
I ditched my Blackberry ten years ago and haven’t had a phone since. I’ve traveled to 40 countries (including North Korea and the Vatican), produced four films, published four books, written hundreds of articles, and spoken LIVE in 300+ cities. None of it required the help of Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk and their “life changing” technologies. I would strongly argue that most people don’t actually need a phone or Facebook or Amazon or Netflix to experience a flourishing human life.
Are we really advancing?
Don’t let the Mars-bound billionaires and the crypto Bitboys fool you — we’re not making nearly as much societal progress as you might think. Most of human “progress” in the digital age is just lateral movement and frenetic busybodying — and whatever real benefits tech is creating are almost exclusively benefiting the top 0.01%.
Democracy is in decline for the 15th year in a row and its accelerating.
Don’t tell me we’re making meaningful progress if it’s not meaningfully improving the lives of the vast majority of humanity and the planet.
What have we done in the past century, really?
We overpopulated like locusts, collapsed biodiversity, savaged the seas, pillaged the trees, poisoned the air, and vaporized the soil.
Is it really progress to warm your house by burning down the walls?
We need more perspective on technology
And perhaps some humility, too.
Democritus devised atomic theory 2,400 years ago.
The Romans had heated floors and were experimenting with nanotechnology 1,600 years ago.
Health nut Hippocrates outlived the average American by more than a decade and died in his nineties.
The Greeks were already building computers more than 2,000 years ago.
The Egyptians invented breath mints.
The Greeks invented sports bras.
Persians invented freezers 3,700 years ago.
The Chinese invented parachutes 4,000 years ago.
Roman concrete is still far superior to anything we can produce today —ours lasts eighty years, and two thousand years later, theirs is still getting harder.
The myth of progress
Our ancient ancestors didn’t believe in progress.
In their worldview, everything was a cycle.
Repeating over and over and over.
Revolutions around the sun.
Winter, spring, summer, fall, repeat.
The circle of life.
Then along came Judeo-Christian belief, and with it, a radical notion — that all of this joy and pain and suffering and work and toil and war and peace were going somewhere; that it was all pointing to something, or more specifically, someone.
It’s a belief that we all still hold today. That we’re improving toward paradise… utopia… heaven on earth.
The great American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson didn’t believe in progress. He likened progress to an ocean — when the tide comes in somewhere, it means it’s going out elsewhere.
“Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts. The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit…”
Are we really making progress when many people are now too afraid to even make eye contact?
What does real progress look like in the twenty-first century?
It looks like cleaner air. Drinkable rivers. Swimmable oceans re-stocked with fish. Far more soil. Great swaths of wild forest. Organic food. Green energy. Actual democracy. More sovereignty. Less bankers and landlords and menace corporate extractors. It means more taxes on the elites or more ownership by the poor. It means far fewer homo sapiens. More sleep. Less screens.
But none of these things are wildly profitable to financialized tech monopolies. None of these improvements beats Dogecoin.
Billionaires would have you believe they are drastically improving our lives. But the facts just don’t bear it out. All the good work of real human benefit is being done by the quiet ones; the nurturing mothers and caring teachers, the humble research assistants and community organizers, the priests and nuns and nurses and organic farmers and stand-up comedians. The real makers, the real contributors. We the people.
To be clear, humanity is making some meaningful progress towards a more sustainable, healthier, democratic, and economically fair world. But almost none of that real progress is being made by Amazon, Tesla, Facebook, Google, or any of the other big tech companies. Their job isn’t to create public progress, it’s to manufacture private profits.
Don’t let the tech icons fool you — they’re not prophets, they’re profiteers.