The philosopher Arnold Gehlen famously described man as a “flawed creature” in his book Man. His Nature and His Place in the World. Indeed, our biological and physiological features often eschew excellence: We aren’t especially fast runners, we aren’t especially strong, and we don’t have the quickest reflexes. Man’s survival is often dependent on our ability to adapt the environment to suit our capabilities, to make it bearable and manageable with the limited powers of our physiological endowment.
In that quest, man has succeeded for several tens of thousands of years. We have pushed ahead into the farthest corners of the earth, we have established habitations in inhospitable climates, we have invented heating systems to fight the cold and air-conditioning to reduce the heat. Human hands have ploughed the land and cleared forests to make room for our cities and roads and fields. Plants have been cultivated and animals have been domesticated to ensure a steady supply of food for human consumption. As a species, mankind isn’t threatened with extinction. If all technological innovation ceased tomorrow, we could live quite happily with the status quo.
A defense of scepticism
We don’t always strive for perfection. To the contrary: as a species, we often embrace imperfect conditions instead of attempting to better them. A desire for perpetual progress isn’t encoded in our genes. Large periods of human history were relatively static. For many generations, our forefathers lived contently without desiring radical change. We also know of contemporary tribes in inaccessible regions of the earth that appear to be quite happy with the world as it is and with their place within it. These tribes don’t necessarily aspire to “be different” or to be more like us.
In the modern West, many people are similarly sceptical of radical change even if it promises great technological, social or medical benefits. As Shakespeare already knew, it’s often easier for us to endure existing hardship than it is to aspire to an unknown future.
Why does this matter? Because attempts to develop new technologies and to propel engineering forward often fail to account for the diversity of views on progress. We are presented with shining examples of scientific possibilities that will change our everyday lives whether we desire it or not. Yet from the perspective of an objective observer, the introduction of many new technologies is unnecessary. Their development isn’t driven by some innate need for progress and survival but by our own curiosity and enthusiasm for new gadgets and by economic interests.
Public group-think, private scepticism
We should recognize it as legitimate to object to this particular line of thinking. An innovative engineer might see the status quo as a problem waiting to be solved or as a situation ready for improvement. But others might disagree and accept the flaws of the world as a natural condition of human existence.
Today, the pursuit of progress and public opinion are largely aligned in Europe, North America and large parts of Asia. The odd sceptic still exists, but they are marginalized by the consensus opinion that problems must be solved, that stagnation means regression, that it would be inhuman to ignore the worries and grievances of minority groups. “Progress” is seen as an unquestionably positive value. Stagnation isn’t valued at all. Politicians, experts, and the media outlets that propagate their views largely agree. Differences exist only about priorities of progress, about financial viability, or about the details of a specific policy proposal.
Matters look decidedly different in the private realm. Not everyone wants to own a smartphone or be active in social networks. Some people prefer paper maps to GPS navigation. Their scepticism is marked by a latent sense of unease about our increasing dependency on digital networks. Unfortunately, public discourses are often unreceptive to such worries.
This leads to an unfortunate dilemma: The advocates of progress are constantly reassured about their own world view, which is recycled and amplified through the positive feedback loop of media coverage and group-think. They are quite simply unaware of sceptics and illiterate about the source of their unease. As long as technological progress is the only available discourse, anything else will appear as dark, diffuse and incomprehensible resistance.
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