The Stifling of Progress

Why Human Potential Will Not be Deterred by Fear

March 07, 2017

the stifling of progress
Whenever a new technology emerges, it’s typical that a vocal minority will overestimate how the advancement will negatively impact our world — from job opportunities for the working class, to the very future of our societal norms. The primary fear goes like this:

First, workers will be replaced by machines.

Next, they are no longer able to provide for their families due to their lack of income.

Finally, children starve and their future opportunities ruined, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

In the end, we all become slaves to robots and usher in the kind of armageddon usually reserved for blockbuster disaster movies.

As much as fear has been at the core of human survival and evolution, the desire to improve our quality of life is just as instinctual. In the beginning, when there was nowhere for humans to go but up, every culture around the globe began developing new technologies that would become the foundation of their respective civilizations: stone tools, clothing, agriculture, wheels, government, music, and so on. Along the way, however, even the most fundamental breakthroughs were met with anxiety, and in many cases, interference.

There was a time when the alphabet was viewed by some as the chief threat to human potential. In 370 BCE, Plato’s Phaedrus follows a conversation in which Socrates railed against written language, afraid it would lead to a dumbing down of the masses. The main argument was that real learning comes from dialogue, and the challenging of ideas in real-time to draw out true knowledge — and without this, mankind would become less imaginative.

Let’s take a look at a more recent example of technophobia from the 19th century: the fear of formal education.

A Terrifying Brick in the Wall

Once information became more accessible, the need arose for locations where young minds could absorb all of this data into their brains. Lo and behold, standardized schooling was born. The formal act of teaching children has existed for thousands of years, but once the practice became putting children in a room for 6 hours a day, many feared the result would be an exhausted and mentally ill youth.

This foreshadowed arguments levied against the Internet in the 90s. Originally created to quickly and accurately disseminate massive amounts of information between government agencies and educational institutions, the Internet grew organically out of our need to document and distribute the collective knowledge of the human race. Yet a small army of naysayers maintain the Internet (and by extension, information) brings more harm than good. It’s clear this is just the same fear we’ve faced before, yet has the power to halt forward momentum.

Technophobic or technorati, it’s easy to forget just how resilient humanity has proven itself to be. It’s absurd to give into fear at such a time, even if there are reasons to be concerned. As The Economist articulated in a great article on automation and anxiety, “Imagine trying to tell someone a century ago that her great-grandchildren would be video-game designers or cybersecurity specialists.” These are examples of careers which would have never existed had we not pushed through the fear of an uncertain future, and focused our collective brain power on building a better world where ingenuity and hope can thrive against irrational obstructions.

The Only Thing to Fear is Fear (of Change) Itself

Progress is difficult and change can be scary, and as much as we like to think it possible, we cannot foresee the future. All we can do is continue to innovate and explore. Technology can be the greatest tool at our disposal, if we continue to work together and stay united in our quest to leave this world better than how we found it.

Our job as thinkers, dreamers, and creators is to weather the criticism, sift through the concerns, and keep our intentions pure. It’s easy to be sidelined by doubt and ignorance, but remember: Fear may threaten progress, but not even it can stifle human potential.

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