Where is Technological Progress Taking Us?

Definition of Progress – a forward movement toward a destination.

I have spent several decades working in and around the Silicon Valley where progress is measured by how many new ideas you can get funded, developed, scaled and sold. The problem is Silicon Valley’s definition of progress is controlled by a relatively small group of investors focused on ROI. I don’t think it’s such a good idea for investors to be the guardians of our progress or its destination. Human progress is more than investor returns. It should include a longer and better-quality life for a larger proportion of people, equality and justice. Many of these qualities, however, don’t attract a lot of VC money.

When the destination for progress is good – humanity benefits. We must all remember that the past wasn’t so great, and progress helped us improve it. Analyst Marian L. Tupy described it as follows, “For most of human history, life was very difficult. People lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug‐infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset yet hunger and famines were commonplace. Transportation was primitive and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind.”

Reading Tupy’s description of our history helps us clearly understand the value of progress, but what happens when the destination of progress takes us in the wrong direction? A direction that does not benefit humanity. Many proponents of globalization would describe it as progress, yet it opened the door to a deadly and widespread pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands and shut-down the global economy. Others call robots, robotic process automation, artificial intelligence and digital commerce progress, but they may eliminate millions of jobs, causing despair and increasing income inequality.

Many of the largest investors and technology companies today, the ones with the most money, are choosing our destination and defining progress without our vote. A destination designed to maximize their revenue, rather than the destination offering the most good for humanity. It seems to me that guiding progress and selecting our destination are two things that are far too important to leave up to investors or the invisible hands of the market.

The Covid-19 pandemic taught us many lessons. Lean and long global supply chains are vulnerable to disruptions, pandemics require pre-developed plans and actions, viruses can shutdown entire economies, finding and developing a working vaccine and successful treatments require global collaboration and investment, testing and manufacturing and many other things. Progress with a purpose to improve the human condition is far more important than progress to maximize investor ROI.

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