The Paradox of Progress

We live in an era of technology.
Technology has tried to put an end to the arduous agrarian way of life and has heralded an epoch of vast development. Thanks to technology and its predictability, man has come to know more about the world and also himself.
Furthermore, technology has facilitated easier and more efficient transportation, and communication has greatly advanced and it is possible to engage in conversation with a number of people all in different continents at the same time.
Signs of technological progress and all the fields it caters for – medicine, energy, agriculture, education etc – abound and are to be found all around society.
And yet with it, proof also exists of an array of signs of regression.
There are a number of examples in contemporary life that one can look at to substantiate and get clarity on the aforementioned statement; let us look at four.
Firstly, we can look at how modern society has provided us with numerous timesaving devices, in the form of telephones, photocopiers, washing machines, fax machines, calculators and the likes.
Today, the Internet allows people to have access to information like never before in history: one can have video conversations with individuals anywhere in the world. Yet despite these time-saving leaps, nowadays many of us complain about not having enough time.
People seem to be constantly pressed for time, having busy schedules replete with appointments, commitments and plans.
The Harris Survey indicates that many of us are spending more time working and therefore have less time for leisure and ourselves, so much so that social critic Jeremy Rifkin (1987) states, “It is ironic that in a culture so committed to saving time we feel  increasingly deprived of the very thing we value. The modern world of transportation, instantaneous communication and time-saving technologies was supposed to free us from the dictates of the clock and provide us with increased leisure. Instead there seem never to be enough time for ourselves and far less for others.”
Secondly, we can look at how contemporarily we live in heightened levels of affluence.
Despite the fact that poverty is still an undeniable fact, Paul Wachtel (1989) argues quite convincingly that both the middle and upper classes have increased in size and in the level of their wealth.
Furthermore Weiten et al (1990) allude to the fact that many of us take for granted the very things that were once considered to be luxuries, such as colour TV’s, air conditioning, computers and other portable storage devices.
People readily spend large sums of money on purchasing fancy vehicles, clothing and vacations and in considering this, Wachtel quotes a museum director who says that “shopping is (contemporarily) the chief cultural activity”.
In spite of this economic abundance, Wachtel notes that “a sense of economic decline is widespread nowadays, (we feel) that declining productivity has pinched our pocketbooks, that inflation has eaten up our buying power, that we can’t catch up and much less get ahead”.
Wachtel states that when one critically analyses our economic systems determination to attain growth plus the effects of mass media advertising (for this also look at Chomsky’s “The Manufacturing of Consent”), one will find that they’ve both created an unquenchable thirst for consumption amongst people.
“Although our standards of living have improved, most of us still feel like we need more goods and services to attain satisfaction. Though rich by any previous standard, we are nevertheless subjectively distressed about our economic plight” (Weiten, 1990).
Thirdly, man has managed to greatly enhance their ability to manage, store and communicate information. From the comforts of our homes, we can access online websites and immediately tap into a body of global information, encyclopaedias, dictionaries and history books that once took up so much space on library shelves, and even more compelling we can store volumes of information on memory sticks the size of a thumb.
Despite all these advances, Richard Wurman (1989) notes that nearly everyone suffers from information anxiety – concern about discrepancies between what we know and understand and what we think we should know and understand.
“The crux of the problem lies in the explosive growth of available information, which now doubles in amount about every five years” (Weiten, 1990).
Wurman points out that a single weekly issue of the New York Times “contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England”.
According to Wurman, people display symptoms of information anxiety when they complain about their inability to keep up with what’s going on, when they pretend they are familiar with a book or artist that they have never heard of or when they feel overwhelmed by the numerous readily available TV channels.
Fourthly, many advances have also been witnessed in the medical arena. Doctors can now perform mind-boggling surgeries, reattach limbs, transplant eyeballs, reconstruct limbs etc.
Contagious diseases such as malaria, typhoid and cholera are largely under control, and if one is to compare the life expectancy of our century with that of previous centuries, one will find blatant increases to the advantage of the former.
Nonetheless, we come to find that the void created by the absence of these contagious diseases has been gradually filled by chronic diseases such as ulcers, cancer, heart diseases etc.
“The increase in chronic diseases is attributable to certain features of our modern lifestyle, such as our penchant for smoking and overeating and our tendency to get little exercise” (Weiten, 1990).
All the contradictions discussed herein hold the same theme: “The technological advances of the (21st) century, impressive though they may be, have not led to perceptible improvements in our collective health and happiness.
“Indeed, many social critics argue that the quality of our lives and our sense of personal fulfilment have declined rather than increased” (Weiten, 1990).
But now one may raise the question of what the possible causes of these paradoxes could be? For this we can look to the analyses of Erich Fromm who offers some insights on this puzzling question.
In “Escape from Freedom”, Fromm points out how a few centuries ago people’s lives were very predetermined. Peasants, for example, knew that they would work the same type of jobs and believe in the same religions and plough the same fields as their parents before them did, and even marriages could be arranged.
According to Fromm’s analysis, people had relatively little personal freedom in a static society. With the arrival of eras such as the renaissance, the reformation and the industrial revolution, this static quality along with the hold and significance that politics and religion played on people’s lives, slowly began to fade as people acquired more personal freedom.
According to Fromm, this phenomenon never halted but has continued and is thriving in present society.
This emancipation has led to a heightened levels of freedom that has presented us with an array of decisions and choices about how one can lead their lives, choices to be made range from whether to and what religion to follow, what political orientation to adopt, where to live and even our sexual orientation.
Unfortunately while our personal freedom has been growing, our old sources of emotional sustenance and security have diminished in effectiveness.
“Fromm notes that the church, the village and the family used to provide people with a more solid base of security. In a static society people had a resolute faith for a single faith which told them exactly how to behave. Today, we have a multiplicity of churches that provide a clear value system for fewer people” (Weiten, 1990).
The stability of the past also facilitated solid friendships to occur and maintain over large periods of time. Today with our busy lifestyles people have a propensity to move and relocate to ever shifting communities where the bonds with neighbours and counterparts are much weaker.
The family has also not escaped these modifications, the tightly knit extended family has become a thing of the past, and when we consider factors such as divorce and mobility, even the nuclear family is no longer tightly knit, hence the family has become a less dependable and stable source of emotional support. This has led Fromm to conclude rather startlingly that “as our old sources of security have declined we have found it more difficult to cope with our newfound freedom. Rather than embracing our newfound freedom many of us find it scary and threatening, in fact, many of us find our freedom so aversive  that we try to escape from it. This escape often takes the form of submitting passively to some authority figure such as a political or religious leader“(Weiten, 1990).
In summary, Fromm’s analyses puts forward that the progress that we are so fond and proud of has actually undermined our sense of security, scrambled our value systems, and confronted us with difficult new problems of adjustment.
Has technology given us rope to develop and build or just enough to hang ourselves with?

• Samuel D Pascoal writes on politics, development issues and international relations from Windhoek, Namibia. He can be contacted on

November 2012
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