On Progress | Vol. 2 / No. 20.1

Photo: Flickr user Kevan, CC BY 2.0
Photo: Flickr user Kevan, CC BY 2.0

This week I’m tackling “progress”: has it really stalled, or are we just down on ourselves for no good reason?


Today I’m responding to a piece by science reporter Michael Hanlon. It’s not personal — he’s got a lot more experience than I do, and I really quite enjoy his articles. You should definitely take a few minutes to read this piece from January 2013 on our collective love affair with the red planet.

But then there’s this, an essay for Aeon called “The Golden Quarter” which argues that, unlike the period from 1945-1971, progress has “stalled.” Yes, I’m a little late to the party — it hit the net in December; but, thanks to the peculiarities of the internet, it only reached me this week, and I felt, as a self-described technology-positivist and general optimist about humanity’s future, that I had to say something. So here I go.

The basic premise of the article is that we’re not making any progress anymore. Not like we did before.

I beg to differ.

Here, I’ll give you a couple of paragraphs of his:

The notion that our 21st-century world is one of accelerating advances is so dominant that it seems churlish to challenge it. Almost every week we read about ‘new hopes’ for cancer sufferers, developments in the lab that might lead to new cures, talk of a new era of space tourism and super-jets that can fly round the world in a few hours. Yet a moment’s thought tells us that this vision of unparalleled innovation can’t be right, that many of these breathless reports of progress are in fact mere hype, speculation – even fantasy.

Yet there once was an age when speculation matched reality. It spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago. Most of what has happened since has been merely incremental improvements upon what came before. That true age of innovation – I’ll call it the Golden Quarter – ran from approximately 1945 to 1971. Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. The Pill. Electronics. Computers and the birth of the internet. Nuclear power. Television. Antibiotics. Space travel. Civil rights.

The argument is simple: everything we think is progress today isn’t really, it’s just oversold hype and fantasy, and the few things that might possibly count as progress are actually just built off real innovations that took place in the so-called “Golden Quarter”.

I have two serious problems with this line of reasoning: The first is the claim that there was actually more “progress” from 1945-1971 than from, well going with the “40 years ago” bit, let’s just say 1975-2015. The second is the claim that the progress that has been made is somehow lesser for having its “seeds sown” in the past.

Combine this with a little selective blindness to things that even meet his own definition of progress (some new invention that’s specifically not a further refinement of an old technique), and together they create an argument I like to call “things were better back in the day.” It goes hand in hand with phrases like “kids these days got no respect,” and “get offa my lawn.” It’s a little like the American Dream: a vision of an imagined past that bootstrapped itself into perfection before we kids came along and lazily rode its coattails to comparative mediocrity. And, like American exceptionalism, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny (sorry kids) it’s a fantasy.

Here’s a quick little history lesson. Let’s talk about a truly great quarter in human progress: 1650-1675. Those were the real days of innovation: Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, Boyle’s Law, Hooke’s discovery of the cell. When Isaac Newton wrote to Robert Hooke that, if he had seen further, he had only done so by standing on the shoulders of giants, he was actually quoting someone from 400 years earlier, Bernard of Chartres, a man who, at least according to John of Salisbury, had an appreciation for the work done by his predecessors. The phrase still holds true today: we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, and we always have been — even (or especially) those working in the “Golden Quarter.”

Sure, we went from propeller planes to jet planes in the Golden Quarter. We went from no planes at all to propeller planes at Kitty Hawk in 1903. It took nearly forty years to get to the Heinkel He 178, let alone the ubiquity of transatlantic passenger flights. But can we even ascribe the jet engine to the Golden Quarter when Frank Whittle got a patent for a turbojet in 1930?

Innovation isn’t linear in all fields at all times. It comes in fits and starts, in different fields at different times. It’s not predictable, and it’s not something that’s easy to compare over time. How can you compare the worth of sets of innovations? What makes the first probe to Mars more progress than the first solar sail? What makes the first antibiotic more innovative than the first humanized monoclonal antibody?

The Golden Quarter, he writes, was a unique period of less than a single human generation, a time when innovation appeared to be running on a mix of dragster fuel and dilithium crystals.

Today, progress is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements in information technology.


We have smartphones, sure. And they’re pretty great: there’s more processing power in my phone today than there was in the best and most powerful supercomputers in the 1970s. What we do with them can be pretty banal: real-time location tracking, constant communication anywhere within cellular range, virtual presence. But progress doesn’t just go where you want it to, it goes where it goes, for economic, political, and frankly serendipitous reasons (among others). The economic problem the late, great Concord solved was solved again for much less by the teleconference. Why fly across the Atlantic for thousands of dollars for a meeting when you can just Skype in for free? And let’s not pretend that the Concord was ever for anyone but commercial clients — the plebs have never had the ability to cross the Atlantic in less than five or six hours.

But come on, I can hear you saying, we haven’t been to the moon in forty years! We wanted flying cars and jetpacks and rayguns! We wanted dome cities and robot helpers and the Jetsons! And we got Twitter, instead.

And I’m telling you that what we got was better.

Because we’re still getting our flying cars and rayguns. We’ve got our robots and our jetpacks. But it turns out that we don’t know what to do with them now that we have them. We’re unnerved by robots, frightened of rayguns, and christ almighty only an adrenaline junkie would use a jetpack — even motorcycles are less dangerous and a good sector of the population wouldn’t get on one to save their life.

And so, sure, we got the Internet, which is reshaping the human condition daily I might add (even if it’s only possible because of things people did before — like everything else), and along with it Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and the personal blog. We got blu-ray and LED TVs and phablets. Because what we wanted had changed.

We want to live longer lives where we’re more connected to each other across greater distances, without the travel.

And by the way, regarding living longer? Yeah: we’re doing that too. Which is why when I read this, I nearly fell out of my chair:

Even if you strip out confounding variables such as age (more people are living long enough to get cancer) and better diagnosis, the blunt fact is that, with most kinds of cancer, your chances in 2014 are not much better than they were in 1974. In many cases, your treatment will be pretty much the same.

That is a serious misrepresentation. Testicular cancer survival rates have doubled since the 1970s. The same is true of Hodgkin’s disease. Breast cancer death rates have fallen in the UK by 40% since the 1980s. If you’re diagnosed with Leukemia in the UK, you stand roughly 25% better chance of making it to five years than you did in the 1970s. Not much better? Tell that to the people who are still alive thanks to medical progress. The only reason we’re dying of cancer more is because we’re surviving other things long enough to do so.

And that’s just with treatment regimens that are outgrowths of, yes, Golden Quarter techniques, which in themselves have progressed over the past 40 years. New treatments, in clinical trials and finally being released into use this year, actually use the body’s own immune system to fight cancer, for example Opdivo, the first FDA-approved monoclonal antibody. Immunotherapy isn’t a pipe-dream, it’s real and it’s working.

Because it’s not all iPads and bluetooth, and fridges that tell you when your milk’s gone bad. We’re in the middle of a biotech revolution: we have organs-on-chips to test new medicines; we have “three-parent” children to erase mitochondrial disease; we’ve made paralyzed people walk again; we’ve replaced dead-weight biological hands with bionic ones that work; 3D-printed liver tissue is on the market and 3D-printed bones are in use; we have in-vivo gene therapy to cure blindness and treat hemophilia. We’ve even developed a new technique to get never-before-seen antibiotics out of the 99% of soil bacteria we couldn’t previously culture.

And that’s not even counting the first probe to make it to Ceres, the first probe to make it to Pluto, the first time anyone has ever landed anything on a comet, or the discovery that Mars was once home to a sea that probably covered 20% of its surface. That doesn’t count the nascent private spaceflight industry poised to make reusable rockets a thing of the present and which in many people’s opinion stands a better chance of getting humans to Mars than NASA’s SLS. That doesn’t even count the solar and wind farms that are springing up all over America to take the place of nuclear tea-kettles that were the 1970s idea of “progress.”

That doesn’t count the slow birth of quantum computing. The creation of cryptocurrencies. The invention of golden rice.

Has it all trickled down yet to the mainstream? Not all of it, not yet. But you want progress? That’s progress: slow and steady. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the pace of change in the 1970s only looks quick in retrospect. Time dilates in the present and contracts in the past, inflating our sense of the length of recent history over the length of more distant times. Legacy can only be judged from a distance.

So are we still making progress? Did we really “stall”? Let’s wait another forty years and see how history remembers it. But if it bears any relation to the evidence I’m seeing, I’m betting it’ll be pretty favourable.