The Big Disconnect

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If human beings are generally healthier, freer, and better entertained than ever before, why are we so pissed off?

Steven Pinker is a forceful voice on how many things have improved over the years; that progress gets more impressive the further back you look, but even in recent history, it’s empirically true that:

Crime is down, as is poverty, pollution, dictatorships, infant mortality, housework, even terrorism. Conversely, there are fewer wars, longer lifespans, less risk of accidental death, higher literacy rates, and more cable channels.

Granted, progress is the act of improving, not its culmination, so there’s certainly lots more work to do on a lot more things, but isn’t it strange that so many people are angry about the current state of the world?

Progress has a branding problem. Here’s how I see it:

First, few people today living in the Global North have any perspective on progress beyond the notes they’ve taken during their own lifetimes. Lost are memories of risking death from a paper cut because there was no penicillin, or avoiding public places in summer for fear of contracting polio. Speaking of seasons, summers were unbearable because nobody had air conditioning, and winters were made worse because there were no fruit or vegetables to eat.

The progress we’ve made on issues involving race, gender, and sexuality is shocking, but it’s hidden behind a generational wall that falls somewhere around the mid-20th century. Circumstances on the far side of that wall are invisible, or at least irrelevant to the experiences of people who weren’t living then.

Second, the progress we’ve made since then, on the near side of the wall, comes across as being far more incremental than life-changing. Smartphones impact so many different aspects of our lives, but not in the overt way that electrification did. Policies that protect workplace safety aren’t as huge as the invention of the 8-hour workday. 

We don’t recognize gradual change the way we acknowledge disruption. It’s why people gain weight and lose political rights. In fact, when we do see incremental change, we get impatient with it, since the bigger problems stubbornly remain. Climate change, poverty, drug addiction and a long list of other challenges seem worse even when they’re made slightly better. 

Third, life is still tough, period. Finding purpose, achieving safety along with some modicum of success, enduring hardship and pain, staying healthy…we face the same issues today that our grandparents did, only the labels and descriptions are different. No amount of being reminded about the Black Death is going to make people any happier about Alzheimer’s, or references to racism in the past make anyone more comfortable with its most recent iterations. We’re at risk of getting shot or blown up today, and the comparisons to the 1950s kinda don’t change how we feel.

I think this is why we’re so pissed off.

It’s not because we’re ungracious for all the progress about which we’re mostly unaware, it’s just not relevant to the problems we face today, and it just doesn’t feel like we’re…well, making much progress anymore.

Which brings me to the Big Disconnect.

Somehow, the purpose and benefits of progress have been made synonymous with making our lives “easier.” Genius marketers have decided that people only care about buying stuff faster and with less forethought and effort. The latest innovations are intended to take complexity out of our lives — technologists call it “friction” — and make it easier for us to be less involved in more things we do. 

Progress is measured not by solving big problems but by making us more efficient consumers, or “Don’t Worry Be Happy” as Bobby McFerrin once sang. This is also the existential threat of AI, which promises to do our thinking for us. It’s hard to get excited about losing control even if artificial brains work better than our own.

Sure, there’s lots of technology coming (and already here) that will truly make our lives better, like wearables and health monitoring to prevent illness and catastrophic events, or infrastructure systems that keep roads safe. But this progress doesn’t involve us; We’re recipients, and we merely consume it and enjoy its benefits in exchange for the mostly unconscious sacrifice of our privacy and agency over our lives.

We don’t own progress…it’s something that happens to us, and it prompts reactions of suspicion, concern, and angry resistance. We get impatient with minuscule shortcomings and difficulties, whether real or imagined. We distrust the motivations and honesty of those who promote progress (and science generally), especially those who seem mostly intent on promoting their own financial success. We elect leaders to blow up the political order because, somehow, we’re just not comfortable with the way things are.

When we’re happy with progress, we barely give it any notice. When something works, or works better, we take it for granted and move our expectations further afield. 

This is the Big Disconnect.

I don’t possess the solution, but I’m pretty sure that it has something to do with involving everyone in solving the problems we face. The progress model needs to be “flipped” from providing us with easy answers, and instead allow us to engage on hard problems. 

Why do we need smart cities? Frankly, I can’t answer that question, though I know a lot about the technology wizardry that’s already available to civil planners. Are gig economy jobs really better than old fashioned jobs, or would we think differently if we knew all the facts about things like insurance, public works, and other “externalities” its promoters ignore? Are robots really our friends? 

I have no idea. None of us can reach an informed conclusion on those topics.

Where are the big initiatives from government these days? I think we’re trying to cure cancer and maybe put humans on Mars, but I can’t say for sure. What about commercial innovation, like a form and function replacement for smartphones, or whether or not GMOs are the answer to world hunger? I can’t say what’s what because there’s no real transparency into such developments, or its promoters are so hellbent on repeating themselves in their advocacy that I’ve tuned them out.

In fact, it has made me kinda pissed off.

I wonder how we might reimagine ourselves as participants in progress, and if companies and institutions could use all the miracles of surveillance and data crunching to identify things we’d be willing to do to change the future, and not only what we’d want to buy along the way? What could be changed in how consumer brands communicate, or how technology innovation projects are defined? Could government set goals that would inspire and involve us?

We’ve made great progress to date, and we’re in need of even greater progress going forward.

But first we need to communicate our way across the Big Disconnect. 

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