Progress has its price
Minor MusingsWhy is it that on some fronts things are changing at lightning speed, while on others we don't seem to make any progress at all?
Published: September 26, 2010
Published: September 26, 2010
Do you remember when you first saw a cell phone? I do. It was about 1969, and James Bond was using one in a movie. The thing was huge, about the length of his forearm, and it had an antenna he had to raise to make a call. I remember thinking, "I'll never need one of those." Now, I carry a miniature one in my pocket, can't get along without it, and I'm quickly making Verizon filthy rich.
I remember in the 1970s watching Captain Kirk on "Star Trek" as he flipped open his little communicator and, with one touch, contacted someone light years away. Fantastic, but "Star Trek" was set in the year 2200, so we suspended disbelief and entered his fantasy world.
I also remember the first time I watched a friend whip out his tiny Motorola phone, flip it open with one hand, touch a single button, and talk to his daughter in England. And it was no fantasy. There we were using virtually the same technology as had been envisioned for 2200, only it was 1998! Obviously, progress was moving much faster than even Gene Roddenberry could have imagined. And Motorola was getting filthy rich.
When I was in college, the mainframe computer at my university took up almost one whole floor of the administration building. Today, the entire thing would fit in my walk-in closet.
In 1997 I worked for an engineering company. We had a computer network that was state of the art at that time. Its entire memory capacity was two gigabytes - so huge we were sure we'd never use it all. Today, just 13 years later, most laptops have more memory than that whole corporate network. And Stephen Jobs, Bill Gates, and the whole computer industry are filthy rich.
Are you getting the picture here? Either we are living in some sort of time warp where everything is moving at light speed, or progress is only made if there's a pile of money in it. Consider what's happening in the world of transportation.
My grandfather made his weekly trip to town, about eight miles one way, with a wagon and a team of horses. It took all day to get there, buy a few supplies, and get back. His grandchildren, if they can afford it, can book a flight to the international space station, and expect to get there and back in almost the same timeframe. Already, several billionaires are knocking each other down to get on this gravy train.
On the other hand, consider this. At the turn of the 20th century, when my grandfather worked his fields with a horse-drawn plow, children were starving to death in dozens of countries around the world. Today, we have factory farms where thousands of acres are planted in a day. We grow so much corn and wheat that our government actually pays farmers not to plant it, in order to keep the price up, so there's a profit in it. Only now, children are starving to death in more than 100 countries around the world.
When I was young, tribal lords in Afghanistan were at war with Russia. The Afghans just waited it out, with a little help from the U.S., and eventually sent the Russians packing. Today, those same tribal lords (now called the Taliban) are at war with their own Afghan government. And, with a little help from the U.S., the Afghans will, again, wait it out, and send us packing. Meanwhile, the pathetic poverty and ignorance of the Afghan people remain just as they've been for centuries.
In technology, transportation, agriculture, and many other endeavors, we triumph, pillars of progress. And we willingly share it all with the world, as long as there's a profit in it.
Too bad there's no fortune to be made in feeding the starving or spreading world peace. If so, we'd have mastered both long ago.