Monday, May 02, 2005

The myth of progress

Here's a random thought: there is no such thing as scientific or technological progress. Human knowledge of both science and technology is broadened only by the recognition of what is already there. Look at any great “invention,” and it is clear that nothing was actually invented or created. In fact, the only thing that was ever invented was the idea of invention. Computers were not created; they were the product of a combination of realizations: the existence of electrons, the manners in which they can be manipulated, the conductive properties of silicon, and so on. Therefore, humans do not create; rather we work with what already is.

It may seem trivial to mention this, but in an age where almost everyone gets their food from a supermarket, almost all products are factory-made, and scholarship has been broken into subcategories which leave science to scientists and politics to political philosophers, it doesn’t seem too foolish to presume that this principle is less easily recognized than it once was. As a result, there is an unstated idea that humans are creating, developing, and progressing to combat the effects nature has on mankind, when essentially we are (or were for a period) coming to understand nature and how to work with it in order to better our lives.

We as people, however, in our language concerning how we come understand nature, tend to label what is new to us as “progress.” As a result, we quantify progress with statistics: longer life-spans, more broad access to information, more efficient means of transportation—yet we often remain ignorant to the fact that life, by and large, remains unchanged. By this I mean, the most significant problems of humanity have not yet been fixed by our so-called progress: war, famine, poverty, disease, ignorance, etc.

Bill Hicks, the famous comedian-philosopher of the early 90s, said in reference to the first Gulf War:

You know, that’s pretty incredible watching missiles fly down air vents―pretty unbelievable―but couldn’t we feasibly use that technology to shoot food at hungry people? You know what I mean? Fly over Ethiopia―there’s a guy that needs a banana! [Hick’s makes the sounds of a missiles being fired, then pretends to be an Ethiopian waving at the planes as they fly past] The stealth banana. Smart fruit.[1]

I don’t care how absurd it may seem to use a quote like that to exemplify my point, but I believe that it is just that simple to show how “progress” doesn’t mean change. The issues that have plagued humanity for so long are just as prevalent with stealth technology as they were with the discovery of gun-powder or the creation of the bow and arrow. In many respects, all of what “progress” denotes is that we are now more efficient at perpetuating these problems―kill faster, more precisely, etc.

The timelessness of Hicks’ quote only exemplifies the lack of improvement we really do experience. For instance, he goes into a talk mocking the “coalition,” jokingly parodying the talks between England and the US―the “coalition of the willing” if you will―yet despite the fact that over a decade has passed, no one would ever know that he wasn’t talking about the second Iraq war. This should disprove any ideas in progress.

Therefore, if progress is an illusion, the belief in this illusion is dangerous, because it destroys nothing but the possibility of true advancement. To remove the purpose of advancing science and technology from the ostensible technology or scientific knowledge which are “advanced” is to forfeit the possibility of accomplishing the goals that these things should bring about.

Again using war as an example, to approach the reality of war by creating more effective weapons of protection is like fighting the pains caused by cancer with painkillers, not by trying to cure the cancer.

In a sense, there is no tangible technology that could produce real advancement. Technology and science must first be coupled with the ideology that its purpose is to address the realities of humanity that cause the problems it is trying to fix. With this approach the permanent eradication of poverty must first establish its goal as addressing the causes of inequality, not with simply giving poor people money or taking money from rich people, just as the end of war should not be seen in the light of how “we” can better protect ourselves from “them” or how could this war be ended, rather it should tackle the question of why and how one arrives at the belief that killing another will best serve him in the long run―and, furthermore, understanding the interconnectedness of it all: poverty, disease, war, famine, etc.

This is so very clear as regards disease―something that I see all too clearly, even if perhaps I have trouble explaining it. My most dear friend has a disease, Cystic Fibrosis, which only affects a small number of people within one racial group―people of European origin. I don’t mention this for pathos, but rather to establish my reason for even knowing, because, to be honest, I wouldn’t know or worry too much about it if I didn’t have this connection, which illustrates my point. Cystic Fibrosis is only of minor importance because of the amount of people it affects, not for the effects it has on the people who have it.

That’s to say, it’s like a small war that doesn’t arouse the same concern as a World War or a single decisive attack that wipes out thousands of people, even though the people hurt in the minor wars experience the same injury as those involved in the larger conflicts.

As a result of this viewpoint, the cure, which has been envisioned, cannot be realized due to the profitability of both the disease itself and the relegation of profit once the disease has been cured. I bring this up not to imply that we should expect pharmaceutical companies to stop considering profit in regards to curing diseases, but to show that we don’t look at curing diseases by understanding first the body. Essentially, what I wish to say is that there is more to CF than coughing, mucus build-up, etc. CF has a history and an impetus which must be taken into account―it is not simply a medical issue.

In a letter written in the late eighteenth century, Lady Mary Wortley Montague describes her discovery of a small pox vaccine during a stay in Turkey. This was not at the same time progress, while it may have seemed as such. Though it was new to her, it was something that had always existed―essentially, the disease itself and the vaccine. When she says, however, that she would leave it to doctors to spread the information about the vaccination if she knew one that she “thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue, for the good of mankind,” she acknowledges the fact that curing disease is a business, not a part of an ideology.

Because the cure isn’t sought as a means to ending disease but a means to profit is why this is still true today with men like Dr. Richard Boucher at UNC Chapel Hill who have had to start company after company to try to push his findings on Cystic Fibrosis[2] through the FDA―an organization which is a whole different discussion in and of itself. Drug companies will not support Boucher because the profitability of the cure is less than the cost of development.[3]

I truly believe that if there was a realization that “progress” as we see it now―using science and technology as its proof―actually hurts our ability to truly advance, then we would see sweeping changes for the better as pertains to our society. Perhaps, I should say we would see change as we have never seen it before, because our “intellectual foundation” could be built on curing the literal and figurative diseases of humanity, not just the symptoms. On thing hit me recently, and I'll close with it:

If we cure disease and we can all live healthily, we're going to have to live together...


Post a Comment

<< Home