The Delusion of Progress

Despite its glorious complexity, our civilization has been incredibly naïve and simplistic when it comes to envisioning the future of humanity. All too often the focus has been solely on technology and innovation, the usual questions including: “what will our cities look like?” or “will we inhabit other solar systems?” Very seldom is there any deep thinking about what our mental health will be in such a world. There is very little consideration of how humans will feel within any given imaginary future world, and much more often than not, the automatic assumption is that we will, of course, be much happier than we are now.

Since innovation always moves at breakneck speed, there is never the time, or even the desire to test the effects of new technologies on our well-being. From cigarette smoking to pesticides, humanity has always learned the hard way which of these innovations are good for us and which are not. Human civilization is an ongoing experiment, and humans are the mad scientists: too risk-taking to stop and think, and always willing to be guinea pigs in their own study.

We have been nurturing a grand delusion about what our future is, and how we get there. In fact, we have been deluding ourselves that we are progressing. Each generation of humans has been reared with the delusion that it is better off than the generation before: better health, better well-being, more happiness. While this may be true when looking at macroeconomic factors such as life expectancy, it is safe to say that we are beginning to fail in most other aspects on an overall basis. Our quality of life is diminishing, and this is evident in the fact that increasingly large parts of our economy are focused on ways of managing and healing the many physical and spiritual ailments we are sustaining in the name progress.

The obesity epidemic is the direct result of so-called progress in our food industry. There has been tremendous progress in increasing the shelf-life of products, while at the same time making them highly addictive. Mass production and quantity have been prioritized at the expense of nutritional quality. Frightening progress in the area of marketing boosted the consumption of this overprocessed food even further, making junk and snack food part of the family culture, and setting humans on a path to diabetes, obesity and cancer from the first days they come into existence on the planet. Our wellbeing has been going into reverse for a long time now. We may live longer, but this is due to technologies and medicines addressing modern diseases that did not even exist before. The reality is we have more ailments today, as well as more things to worry about.

Our current predicament has already answered the question “will humans be happy in this future world?” There are record levels of depression and anxiety, which most of us accept as a benign compromise of “modern living”. We have blindly accepted that in this new, polluted world, we are meant to be busy, to be stressed, sleepless, and unhappy. Yet we don’t recognize that this is not an ordinary unhappiness, but a deep existential crisis that is here to stay, simply because we said goodbye to all our previous worlds, in the name of progress. Without thinking twice, in our rush to achieve each new milestone in our civilization we galloped forwards, leaving behind both our body and mind.

Our biggest mistake was assuming that we would be happier and more fulfilled in a world that was more functional. All our models of progress focused on increasing our every-day convenience, rather than developing our well-being. We have left a lot of our life up to automation and “efficiency”, without realizing the negative effects of this. Mass production of food has resulted in more choice but lower quality. Our educational system is focused on building specialized humans with “skills” and “qualifications” , rather than whole ones with a world view, critical thinking, moral compass and a conscience. Our work has moved from real jobs to “bullshit jobs”, from making stuff to handling stuff, and from doing to re-doing. We may have built machines to automate our lives, but we became machines ourselves in the process.

In fact, it would seem that we are beginning to look more and more similar to each other, as if we are industrially-made products ourselves. Just like the cheap, mass-manufactured products they created, humans have become more single-layered, predictable and plastic. Society has become a factory of churning out almost identical humans who are ready to consume more, think less, and never dare to stray away from the assembly line of the factory, or they’ll be quickly chucked into the bin labelled “unsellable”. We have become the sweatshop-made, barcoded, budget version of our former selves. Our worth is pre-set, our whereabouts are known at all times, and our usage is clearly limited by the safety label in the back of the packet.

It is easy to see the damage that progress has inflicted on us in as little as just one generation. The conversations I have with my mother about her childhood are most enlightening. In my mother’s house, there was no fridge. Families would prepare their own food and find ways to store it. People were very poor, but every house had a piglet, which they would slaughter and boil, and preserve in ceramic pots. This would be the entire meat supply for the year, without any need for CO2-emitting refrigeration and transportation, mountains of plastic packaging, and administration costs. Most of all, it was organic, high quality and much better-tasting meat, with very little impact on the environment.

But the magic was all in the experience and the way that people lived so much more meaningfully, connected to the production process. I remember my mother’s story about making home-made pasta, using locally sourced flour, butter and eggs that of course have a much higher nutritional content. After the dough was made, sheets and strings of pasta dough were suspended from every piece of furniture in the house in order to air-dry, before it was to be cut to pieces and stored for the winter. The entire family was involved in the production, and my mother’s main role as a little girl was to make sure the cats were kept away from jumping on the strings of pasta while it dried. The food was more nutritious, and the family was making memories, feeling connected with each other, feeling grateful to the mill that gave them the flour, the hens that laid the eggs, the generosity of nature and the community they lived in. Compare this to the five seconds it takes to grab a stale imported packet of bleached pasta and throw it in the supermarket trolley. Are we happy in our new world? Are we even alive?

It is no wonder that some of us are asking this, given that much of our life has become virtual: our friends, our workplaces, our leisurely activities. We are becoming algorithms, avatars, trying to navigate a world that is not just a step change from where we are, but a massive leap into the unknown. There is increasing pressure to conform to stereotypes propagated by the metaverse, projected on to us by an economic system that is only interested in making us efficient consumers. In the name of living up to our online avatar and the perfect person we are expected to be in this new world, we are increasingly asked to compromise our personal life, our data, anything that makes us look “different”, at the risk of being chucked into the “unsellable” bin. Racism and discrimination take on more covert, digital incarnations, escaping detection.

The more humans become isolated from each other through layers and layers of algorithm, the more they embark on a silly, desperate quest to “find themselves”, looking in all but the right places. It is no wonder that there is a entire industry of life coaching set up to monetize our new insecurities in this environment, and a pathological blogging and social media culture aimed to convince people that they are not good enough, both physically and mentally, so that they purchase “solutions”. Modern civilization is looking increasingly like a botched plastic surgery: we went in for a huge facelift job so that we can look great on the outside, without even asking about the internal complications in the medium term. Rather than stepping back and considering our place, we are adding one plastic surgery on top of another as our psychological coping strategy.

Our natural world won’t be happy if we don’t manage to be happy first. We are taking out our mental illnesses on Earth, mindlessly destroying our natural heritage in order to fuel consumption and other addictions. In order to finance this habit, some of us accept to take high-paying corporate jobs that increasingly lead to burnout, discrimination, exploitation and further isolation and dehumanisation that we willingly subject ourselves to. We are driving ourselves mad as well as physically ill, for nothing.

And yet we still choose to call all of this, “progress”.

George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books

3 thoughts on “The Delusion of Progress

  1. Hi George, I just wanted to say that I resonate so much with your is just like you have took my thoughts & articulated them, so much better than I ever could lol. Good luck with your book & message to the world! Kind Regards Roseanne.

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