Is 'Progress' Good for Humanity?

Rethinking the narrative of economic development, with sustainability in mind
Jeremy Caradonna Sep 9 2014, 7:50 AM ET

Rage against the machine: Luddites smashing a loom. (Chris Sunde/Wikimedia Commons)
Rage against the machine: Luddites smashing a loom. (Chris Sunde/Wikimedia Commons)

The stock narrative of the Industrial Revolution is one of moral and economic progress. Indeed, economic progress is cast as moral progress.

The story tends to go something like this: Inventors, economists, and statesmen in Western Europe dreamed up a new industrialized world. Fueled by the optimism and scientific know-how of the Enlightenment, a series of heroic men—James Watt, Adam Smith, William Huskisson, and so on—fought back against the stultifying effects of regulated economies, irrational laws and customs, and a traditional guild structure that quashed innovation. By the mid-19th century, they had managed to implement a laissez-faire (“free”) economy that ran on new machines and was centered around modern factories and an urban working class. It was a long and difficult process, but this revolution eventually brought Europeans to a new plateau of civilization. In the end, Europeans lived in a new world based on wage labor, easy mobility, and the consumption of sparkling products.

Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?


October 28, 1984

As if being 1984 weren't enough, it's also the 25th anniversary this year of C. P. Snow's famous Rede Lecture, ''The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,'' notable for its warning that intellectual life in the West was becoming increasingly polarized into ''literary'' and ''scientific'' factions, each doomed not to understand or appreciate the other. The lecture was originally meant to address such matters as curriculum reform in the age of Sputnik and the role of technology in the development of what would soon be known as the third world. But it was the two-culture formulation that got people's attention. In fact it kicked up an amazing row in its day. To some already simplified points, further reductions were made, provoking certain remarks, name-calling, even intemperate rejoinders, giving the whole affair, though attenuated by the mists of time, a distinctly cranky look.

Today nobody could get away with making such a distinction. Since 1959, we have come to live among flows of data more vast than anything the world has seen. Demystification is the order of our day, all the cats are jumping out of all the bags and even beginning to mingle. We immediately suspect ego insecurity in people who may still try to hide behind the jargon of a specialty or pretend to some data base forever ''beyond'' the reach of a layman. Anybody with the time, literacy and access fee these days can get together with just about any piece of specialized knowledge s/he may need.

Will progress in science and technology avert or accelerate global collapse? A critical analysis and policy recommendations

Michael H. Huesemann , Joyce A. Huesemann Received: 24 May 2006 / Accepted: 24 January 2007 /

Published online: 21 June 2007 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007


Industrial society will move towards collapse if its total environmental impact (I), expressed either in terms of energy and materials use or in terms of pollution, increases with time, i.e., dI/dt > 0. The traditional interpretation of the I = PAT equation reflects the optimistic belief that technological innovation, par- ticularly improvements in eco-efficiency, will significantly reduce the technology (T) factor, and thereby result in a corresponding decline in impact (I). Unfortunately, this interpretation of the I = PAT equation ignores the effects of technological change on the other two factors: population (P) and per capita affluence (A).

A more heuristic formulation of this equation is I = P(T).(T). in which the dependence of P and A on T is apparent.

From historical evidence, it is clear that technological revolutions (tool-making, agricultural, and industrial) have been the primary driving forces behind successive population explosions, and that modern communication and transportation technologies have been employed to transform a large proportion of the world’s inhabitants into consumers of material- and energy- intensive products and services.

Hours of work and the ecological footprint of nations - an exploratory analysis

Authors: Anders Hayden a; John M. Shandra b
Affiliations: a Sociology Department, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, USA

Sociology Department, State University of New York at Stony Brook
Stony Brook, NY, USA

DOI: 10.1080/13549830902904185

Published in: Local Environment, Volume 14, Issue 6 July 2009 , pages 575 - 600


Concerns over the unsustainability of current social and economic practices persist, despite significant improvements in recent decades in ecological efficiency - i.e. the ability to produce each dollar of economic output with fewer resource inputs and pollution outputs. As increases in production frequently outpace eco-efficiency improvements, the ecological impacts of many nations continue to grow.

In light of such trends, eco-efficiency improvements may be inadequate to address ecological challenges unless accompanied by the notion of sufficiency, i.e. moderating the growth of production and consumption. One sufficiency-based option involves a shift in emphasis in the way already-affluent nations benefit from economic progress.

What's Wrong with Technological Fixes?

Terry Winograd Interviews Evgeny Morozov

July 01, 2013

If you are looking for some smart, informed skepticism about the promise of digital technology to cure important problems, Evgeny Morozov is the critic for you. In his second book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, the BR contributing editor takes aim at what he describes as Silicon Valley’s “amelioration orgy.” According to the ameliorationists, “all that matters” is “to get humans to behave in more responsible and sustainable ways, to maximize efficiency.”

Morozov characterizes this impulse to fix everything as “solutionism,” and offers two broad challenges to the solutionist sensibility. First, solutionists often turn public problems into more bite-sized private ones. Instead of addressing obesity by regulating the content of food, for example, they offer apps that will ‘nudge’ people into better personal choices. Second, solutionists overlook the positive value in the ‘vices’ they seek to ‘cure.’

Charles Fishman, The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works – and How It’s Transforming the American Economy.

New York:
Penguin Books,
ISBN 9780143038788.

Pages 68-9

Willie Pietersen, now a professor at Columbia University’s business school, has decades of experience in consumer products as president of Unilever’s Lever Foods Group, president of Seagram’s U.S. liquor business, and president of Tropicana, the dominant orange juice brand in the United States. He learned quickly, he says, that the few things that matter to Wal-Mart are nonnegotiable. “They won’t relent. They’d just as soon do business without Tropicana, and keep faith with their customers,” says Pietersen. “That hurts if you are a supplier. If you want to protest, and writhe around in agony, fine. But this in the real world, what these people are doing is, they are revolutionizing the supply chain. Instead of being a victim, the trick is, how can we get super efficient?

“And once you are, that efficiency washes over not just your Wal-Mart business, but the total business. If you do it, then you have to doff your hat and say, ‘Thank you, Wal-Mart, for putting the pressure on us.’”

But Pietersen says that, teams notwithstanding, the idea that suppliers have a partnership with Wal-Mart is a little silly. “I think it is a misnomer to call it a partnership. They might want to dress it up and call it a partnership. It’s not. They’re saying, I take care of my customer. They are saying, on behalf of that customer, for whom I am the champion, I’m going to use leverage of scale and power. There is a tension in that situation that needs to exist for that to work. But that doesn’t sound like a partnership.”

Edward Glaeser. Triumph of the City
Penguin Press.

Pages: 34-35

Silicon Valley and Bangalore remind us that electronic interactions won't make face-to-face contact obsolete. The computer industry, more than any other sector, is the place where one might expect remote communication to replace person-to-person meetings; computer companies have the best teleconferencing tools, the best Internet applications, the best means of connecting far-flung collaborators. Yet despite their ability to work at long distances, this industry has become the world's most famous example of the benefits of geographic concentration. Technology innovators who could easily connect electronically pay for some of America's most expensive real estate to reap the benefits of being able to meet in person.

A wealth of research confirms the importance of face-to-face contact. One experiment performed by two researchers at the University of Michigan challenged groups of six students to play a game in which everyone could earn money by cooperating. One set of groups met for ten minutes face-to-face to discuss strategy before playing. Another set of groups had thirty minutes for electronic interaction. The groups that met in person cooperated well and earned more money. The groups that had only connected electronically fell apart, as members put their personal gains ahead of the group's needs. This finding resonates well with many other experiments, which have shown that face-to-face contact leads to more trust, generosity, and cooperation than any other sort of interaction.

Henry Petroski. To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.

New York:
St. Martin’s Press,
ISBN 0312806809

Page 186

The rational analysis of failures, whether in fact, in fiction, or in myth, is of incalculable value to the engineer, for it is as much the designer’s business to know how any structure might fail as it is a chess player’s to know how one false move may lead to checkmate. Failures are the accidental experiments that contribute to the engineer’s expertise, just as the colossal mistakes of chess masters should be lessons for students of the game.

But engineering design is more complicated that a game of chess, even though Mother Nature, if she is thought of as the defending world champion, responds more predictably to our moves than does any Russian opponent. What complicates the design game is that the engineer does not always realize all the implications of the design move he himself is making. Thus, no matter how well he understands Mother Nature’s strategy, he may not anticipate her response because he does not see his own move from her side of the board.

Pages 193-95

The computer enables engineers to make more calculations more quickly than was conceivable with either the slide rule or the calculator, hence the computer can be programmed to attack problems in structural analysis that would never have been attempted in the pre-computer days.

The Surprisingly Large Energy Footprint of the Digital Economy [UPDATE]

Aug. 14, 2013

Our computers and smartphones might seem clean, but the digital economy uses a tenth of the world's electricity — and that share will only increase, with serious consequences for the economy and the environment

A server room at a data center. One data center can use enough electricity to power 180,000 homes

Which uses more electricity: the iPhone in your pocket, or the refrigerator humming in your kitchen? Hard as it might be to believe, the answer is probably the iPhone. As you can read in a post on a new report by Mark Mills — the CEO of the Digital Power Group, a tech- and investment-advisory firm — a medium-size refrigerator that qualifies for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating will use about 322 kW-h a year. The average iPhone, according to Mills’ calculations, uses about 361 kW-h a year once the wireless connections, data usage and battery charging are tallied up. And the iPhone — even the latest iteration — doesn’t even keep your beer cold. (Hat tip to the Breakthrough Institute for noting the report first.)

The new Luddites - why former digital prophets are turning against tech

Neo-Luddism began to emerge in the postwar period. First after the emergence of nuclear weapons, and secondly when it became apparent new computer technologies had the power to change our lives completely.

by Bryan Appleyard Published 29 August, 2014 - 15:18

Very few of us can be sure that our jobs will not, in the near future, be done by machines. We know about cars built by robots, cashpoints replacing bank tellers, ticket dispensers replacing train staff, self-service checkouts replacing supermarket staff, tele­phone operators replaced by “call trees”, and so on. But this is small stuff compared with what might happen next.

Nursing may be done by robots, delivery men replaced by drones, GPs replaced by artificially “intelligent” diagnosers and health-sensing skin patches, back-room grunt work in law offices done by clerical automatons and remote teaching conducted by computers. In fact, it is quite hard to think of a job that cannot be partly or fully automated. And technology is a classless wrecking ball – the old blue-collar jobs have been disappearing for years; now they are being followed by white-collar ones.

The Moral Power of Curiosity

April 10, 2014 David Brooks

Most of us have at one time or another felt ourselves in the grip of the explanatory drive. You’re confronted by some puzzle, confusion or mystery. Your inability to come up with an answer gnaws at you. You’re up at night, turning the problem over in your mind. Then, suddenly: clarity. The pieces click into place. There’s a jolt of pure satisfaction.

We’re all familiar with this drive, but I wasn’t really conscious of the moral force of this longing until I read Michael Lewis’s book, “Flash Boys.”

As you’re probably aware, this book is about how a small number of Wall Street-types figured out that the stock markets were rigged by high-frequency traders who used complex technologies to give themselves a head start on everybody else. It’s nominally a book about finance, but it’s really a morality tale. The core question Lewis forces us to ask is: Why did some people do the right thing while most of their peers did not?

The answer, I think, is that most people on Wall Street are primarily motivated to make money, but a few people are primarily motivated by an intense desire to figure stuff out.

The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us

Author: Diane Ackerman
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Copyright 2014 by Diane Ackerman

Pages: 179 - 181

Today's selection -- from The Human Age by Diane Ackerman. The incredible developments unfolding at nanoscale:
"We're not just seeing invisibles; we're engineering things on a minute, invisible-to-the-eye scale. 'Nano,' which means 'dwarf' in Greek, applies to things one-billionth of a meter long. In nature that's the size of sea spray and smoke. An ant is about 1 million nanoparticles long. A strand of hair is 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide, roomy enough to hold 100,000 perfectly machined carbon nanotubes (which are 50 to 100 times stronger than steel at one-sixth the weight). A human fingernail grows about 1 nanometer a second. About 500,000 nanometers would fit in the period at the end of this sentence, with room left over for a rave of microbes and a dictator's heart.

"I'm stirred by the cathedral-like architecture of the nanoscale, which I love to ogle in photographs taken through scanning electron microscopes. One year in college, I spent off-duty hours hooking long-stranded wool rugs after the patterns of the amino acid leucine (seen by polarized light), an infant's brain cells, a single neuron, and other objects revealed by such microdelving. How beautifully some amino acids shine when lit by polarized light: pastel crystals of pyramidal calm, tiny tents along life's midway. Arranged on a slide or flattened on a page, they glow gemlike but arid. We cannot see their vitality, how they collide and collude as they build behavior. But their nanoscale physiques are eye-openers, and more and more we're turning to nature for inspiration.

William J. Baumol, with contributions by David de Ferranti, Monte Malach, Arel Pablos-mendez, Hilary Tabish and Lilian Gomory Wu.

The Cost Disease: Why Computers Get Cheaper and Health Care Doesn’t.

Yale University Press,
New Haven,
ISBN 9780300179286

Page 20

The cost disease stems from the nature of what I will refer to as “the personal services,” which usually require direct, face-to-face interaction between those who provide the service and those who consume it. Doctors, teachers, and librarians all have jobs that require in-person contact.

Other parts of the economy – car manufacturing, for instance – require no direct personal contact between the consumer and the producer. The buyer of an automobile usually has no idea who worked on its assembly and does not care how much labor time went into its production.

Pages 23-4

Live contact permits questions to be asked and answered by doctors and teachers, which is surely important and beneficial. Still, professors and medical doctors often have an inflated view of the benefits of their personal attendance in the lecture hall and the operating room. These attributes are widely shared by medical patients, students and others who benefit from such person-to-person interactions. This creates yet another obstacle to labor-saving modifications in stagnant-sector activities, even as labor-saving efforts are constantly under way throughout the progressive sector. Psychological resistance to labor-saving change in the personal services increases the lag in productivity growth that characterizes these services.

The divide between these stagnant and other services is evident when one examines job losses and gains during the current recession. Between December 2007 and June 2009, for example the motor vehicle and parts sector lost 35 percent of its jobs – the largest loss of any U.S. employment sector. The twenty sectors with the largest declines in employment also included textile mills (24 percent job loss), construction (17 percent), and manufacturing (14 percent). Ever increasing efficiency in these nonstagnant sectors – a key component of the cost disease – has allowed them to keep up with demand by laying off workers. In contrast, the stagnant sectors are fare less amenable to labor-saving changes, they cannot continue to provide their services with fewer workers.

Pages 25-6

Carr, Nicholas. The Big Switch.

New York: Norton,
ISBN 978039306228

Pages 85-6

The Columbian Exposition was a monument to the idea of technological progress. It celebrated advances in industry, transportation, and the arts, but most of all it celebrated the arrival of electricity as the nation's new animating force. The organizers of the event wrote that it was their intention "to make the World's Fair site and the buildings one grand exemplification of the progress that has been made in electricity." A steam plant, built on the grounds, pumped out 24,000 horsepower of energy, nearly three-quarters of which went to generating electric current. During its run, the exposition consumed three times as much electricity as the rest of the city of Chicago.

Pages 88-9

Electrification, people were told, would cleanse the earth ot disease and strife, turning it into a pristine new Eden. "We are soon to have everywhere," wrote one futurist, "smoke annihilators, dust absorbers, ozonators, sterilizers of water, air, food, and clothing, and accident preventers on streets, elevated roads, and subways. It will become next to impossible to contract disease germs or get hurt in the city." Another announced that "electrified water" would become "the most powerful of disinfectants." Sprayed into "every crack and crevice," it would obliterate "the very germs of unclean matter." "Indeed," wrote another, "by the all potent power of electricity, man is now able to convert an entire continent into a tropical garden at his pleasure."


By Randall Mann

There was a time
we had functional alignment.
I was your individual
contributor, you my associate

director. On Monday
I said Happy Monday,
rolling my rimshot grin.

by cool molecules,
like cattle, I battled biosimilars,
sipped local gin;
I tried my luck at affairs

and trade fairs,
optimistic as a fantasy
suite. I inked the deal,
the ink slick

Michael Huesemann and Joyce Heusemann,
TechNO-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment.
New Society Publishers: Vancouver, Canada.
ISBN 9780865717046

Page 32

Military technologies, like most other technologies developed since the Industrial Revolution, are essentially labor-saving devices. i.e., they increase efficiency, in this case the killing efficiency of soldiers, The substantial investment in military research and development by industrialized nations during the past hundred years has resulted in the generation of ever-more-powerful and lethal weapons systems, which after deployment have caused millions of deaths and enormous destruction. In addition, because many military technologies such as bombs, missiles, nuclear weapons and chemical warfare agents kill indiscriminately, the proportion of civilians killed in wars has steadily increased. (105)

Page 94

There is a general demand for "more of everything" (i.e., benefits), ranging from greater affluence to a longer life. This points to the most critical limitation of technological efficiency improvements: given, as will be demonstrated later, that there are inherent technical and thermodynamic limits to efficiency gains (emax = const) and that the growth in demand for all types of benefits is generally open-ended, the overall use of a particular limited resource will not decline with time but will increase. Thus, efficiency improvements alone will not solve the many problems associated with the over-exploitation of natural resources and the pollution of the environment. Moreover, technological innovation in general and efficiency improvements in particular have been key contributors to the rapid growth in material affluence during the past 200 years.

Sympathy for the Luddites

By PAUL KRUGMAN June 13, 2013

In 1786, the cloth workers of Leeds, a wool-industry center in northern England, issued a protest against the growing use of “scribbling” machines, which were taking over a task formerly performed by skilled labor. “How are those men, thus thrown out of employ to provide for their families?” asked the petitioners. “And what are they to put their children apprentice to?”

Those weren’t foolish questions. Mechanization eventually — that is, after a couple of generations — led to a broad rise in British living standards. But it’s far from clear whether typical workers reaped any benefits during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution; many workers were clearly hurt. And often the workers hurt most were those who had, with effort, acquired valuable skills — only to find those skills suddenly devalued.

So are we living in another such era? And, if we are, what are we going to do about it?

You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier.


An apocalypse of self-abdication

THE IDEAS THAT I hope will not be locked in rest on a philosophical foundation that I sometimes call cybernetic totalism. It applies metaphors from certain strains of computer science to people and the rest of reality. Pragmatic objections to this philosophy are presented.

What Do You Do When the Techies Are Crazier Than the Luddites?

The Singularity is an apocalyptic idea originally proposed by John von Neumann, one of the inventors of digital computation, and elucidated by figures such as Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil. There are many versions of the fantasy of the Singularity. Here’s the one Marvin Minsky used to tell over the dinner table in the early 1980s:

One day soon, maybe twenty or thirty years into the twenty- first century, computers and robots will be able to construct copies of themselves, and these copies will be a little better than the originals because of intelli-gent software. The second generation of robots will then make a third, but it will take less time, because of the improvements over the first generation.

The process will repeat. Successive generations will be ever smarter and will appear ever faster. People might think they’re in control, until one fine day the rate of robot improvement ramps up so quickly that superintelligent robots will suddenly rule the Earth.

Why You Hate Work


THE way we’re working isn’t working. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job, you’re probably not very excited to get to the office in the morning, you don’t feel much appreciated while you’re there, you find it difficult to get your most important work accomplished, amid all the distractions, and you don’t believe that what you’re doing makes much of a difference anyway. By the time you get home, you’re pretty much running on empty, and yet still answering emails until you fall asleep.