Lightman, Alan. Dance For Two
New York: 1996

ISBN 0679758771
Pages 89-90

In the twentieth century the concept of progress changed, becoming increasingly tied to technology and large dehumanized technological systems. By the time of the 1939 World's Fair, in New York, one would read the following in the promotional literature of the futuristic General Motors exhibit: "Since the beginning of civilization, transportation and communication have been keys to Man's progress, his prosperity, his happiness." In one fell swoop, technology, progress, and happiness had become bound in a compelling dream of the future.

Today, at the end of the twentieth century, a crucial question before us is whether developments in technology inevitably improve the quality of life. And if not, we must ask how our society can employ some selectivity and restraint, given the enormous capitalistic forces at work. That is a terribly difficult problem for several reasons, not the least of which is the subjective nature of progress and quality of life. Is progress greater human happiness? Greater comfort? Greater speed in personal transportation and communication? The reduction of human suffering? Longer life span? Even with a definition of progress, its measurements and technological requirements are not straightforward. If progress is human happiness, has anyone shown that twentieth-century people are happier than nineteenth-century people? If progress is comfort, how do we weigh the short-term comfort of air conditioning against the long-term comfort of a pollution-free environment? If progress is longer life span, can we ever discontinue life support for a dying patient in pain?

Only a fool would claim that new technology rarely improves the quality of life. The electric light has expanded innumerable human activities, from reading to nighttime athletic events. Advances in medicine -- particularly the germ theory of disease, public-health programs, and the development of good antiseptics -- have obviously reduced physical suffering and substantially extended the healthy human life span.

But one can also argue that advances in technology do not always improve life. I will skip over such obvious environmental problems as global warming, ozone depletion, and nuclear-waste disposal, and consider something more subtle: high-speed communications. We are already seeing people at restaurants talking into cellular phones as they dine. Others take modems on vacations, so they can stay in touch with their offices at all times. Or consider E-mail, the example I began with. E-mail has undeniable benefits. It is faster than regular mail and cheaper and less obtrusive than the telephone. It can promote conversations among far-flung communities of people, and it can encourage otherwise reticent talkers to speak up, via computer terminals. But E-mail, in my view, also contributes to the haste, the thoughtlessness, and the artificial urgency that increasingly characterize our world.