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We should know by now that progress isn’t guaranteed — and often backfires



If you look back on recent history, our most powerful disruptions shared one characteristic: They were not widely foreseen. This was true of the terrorism of 9/11; the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the parallel Great Recession; and now the coronavirus pandemic — with all its destructive side effects on public health, the economy and our national psyche.

In each case, there was a failure of imagination, as Tom Friedman has noted. Warnings found little receptiveness among the public or government officials. We didn’t think what happened could happen. The presumption of progress bred complacency. To emphasize: There was a failure of imagination in each case.

We couldn’t imagine hijacked passenger jets smashing into the twin towers. We couldn’t imagine a global financial crisis because nothing like it had happened since the 1930s. We had learned the lessons of the Great Depression and could prevent a repetition, it was said. The same seemed true of pandemics. After all, we had developed a vaccine against Ebola, which demonstrated our capacity to repel viral threats, or so it appeared. We fooled ourselves into thinking we had engineered permanent improvements in our social and economic systems.

To be fair, progress as it’s commonly understood — higher living standards — has not been at a standstill. Many advances have made life better. Without antibiotics and other modern pharmaceuticals, the world would be a more dangerous and dispiriting place. The adoption of modern technology has enabled hundreds of millions of people around the world to escape crushing poverty. The expansion of the welfare state (what Americans call the “safety net”) has made contemporary capitalism less harsh.

Still, the setbacks loom ever larger. Our governmental debt is high, and economic stability is low. Many of the claims of progress turn out to be exaggerated, superficial, delusional or unattainable, as the historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his 1955 book, “The Age of Reform.”

“We go off on periodic psychic sprees that purport to be moral crusades . . . [to] restore absolute popular democracy or completely honest competition in business,” he wrote. “Very often the evils they are troubled about do exist in some form, usually something can be done about them.” But the pursuit of progress “often wanders over the border between reality and impossibility.”

What we should have learned by now is that progress is often grudging, incomplete or contradictory. In its American version, much was expected of both strong economic growth and technological gains. But the lesson of both economic growth and technologies is that they are double-edged swords and must be judged as such.

Sure, the Internet enables marvelous things. But it also imposes huge costs on society: intrusions in people’s privacy; the theft of valuable business and governmental records; and — most important — the transformation of warfare as combatants strive to destroy each other’s cyber networks and create widespread social and economic chaos.

Global warming is another example. It is largely a result of the burning of fossil fuels, which has been the engine of our progress. Now, it is anti-progress. The point here is not that technologies are good or bad but that they have uneven consequences that should be better understood, if and when they are deployed. Similar inconsistencies and ambiguities attach to economic growth. It raises some up and pushes others down.

What connects these various problems is the belief that the future can be orchestrated. The reality is that our control over the future is modest at best, nonexistent at worst. We react more to events than lead them.

We worship at the altar of progress without adequately acknowledging its limits. Despite its seductive rhetoric, it is hardly a panacea. This does not mean that we should repudiate the effort to make things better. But it does mean that we should be more candid about what is possible. If not, we might yet again wander over the “border between reality and impossibility.”

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