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What Is The Price of Progress?

publishedabout 1 month ago
7 min read

What Is The Price Of Progress?

Throughout history, humans have discovered, invented, and harnessed countless resources and applied them to the improvement and extension of human lives.

  • The internet allows us to capture the sights and sounds (but thankfully, NOT the smells) of our environment and send them to someone on the other side of the world in real-time
  • Refrigeration allows us to delay decay in our food supply for hours, weeks, and even years
  • Medicine allows us to overcome life-threatening health complications with little more than a few ounces of plastic and steel or a few milligrams of chemical compounds extracted from the natural world
  • Engines allow us to convert energy-dense substances into mechanical motion to swiftly move goods and people around our planet — and even through the solar system!

Yet, for modern people, it’s difficult to feel thankful for these things, since most of us don’t know, or simply don’t remember, what life was like without them.

But it goes deeper than that: for all the ways in which we’ve tamed the natural world, we seem to have lost control of our inner worlds.

In a world that’s safer, cleaner, and more connected than at any point in recorded history, why the fuck are people getting more miserable?

Of course, part of the recent decline in human joy has to do with some recent social backsliding: a pandem!c, a major armed conflict, and record inflation are certainly difficult to categorize as “blessings of modernity”.

But I think it’s more than that. I think that humans simply aren’t meant for This Shit™.

What is This Shit™?

  • Working shitty jobs to earn money that doesn’t even exist to pay for shit that nature makes for free (you know, like food)
  • Getting permission from multiple organizations (banks, governments, homeowners associations) to eat, sleep, and shit in the same safe place every night (your house)
  • Drawing lines on a map to represent borders on connected landmasses and oceans (just wait until we start dividing the solar system — who’s liable when my asteroid collides with someone else’s asteroid in your sector?)
  • Eating food loaded with sugar but low in healthy fats and protein, and filling our bodies with chemicals every morning, afternoon, and evening, sometimes according to the “professional medical opinion” of people profiting off of suffering and illness

Sure, there are more people, and our lives are longer and easier — but are our lives really that much better?

The Lifespan Delusion

One of the first things I learned in school was that I should be grateful for science because, before the innovations of modern technology, my ancestors lived short, miserable lives.

Turns out, that’s not quite true. Our ancestors lived longer than we tend to give them credit for — however, most of them died as children. That means that anyone who made it past the age of 15 had a decent chance of living to 60 or 70.

That’s a bit of a different picture than a world full of sickly people who died in their 30s.

So, how would our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors have spent their time?

Well, in a world where only a fraction of the population lives into adulthood and there are few, if any, governments, people pretty much did whatever the fuck they wanted.

In this world, a human would likely encounter, at a maximum, only a few hundred other humans within their lifetime, and most of them would be sick children. There would be an abundance of edible plant and animal life, fewer annual contagious diseases, and zero mass shootings and bombings perpetrated by lone psychopaths.

Our ancestors had more leisure time, better diets, and less arthritis than we do. They were also stronger and had larger brains.

I won’t pretend the past was paradise, though. A large percentage of ancient human remains bear the marks of violence at the hands of other humans. Also, as I said before, most children died of illness or exposure before they ever got the chance to fight off an angry adult.

Let’s compare that to what we know about the average life of a member of the working class:

On top of that, consider how much time we spend on hold with customer service, shopping for groceries, renewing our Driver’s License and vehicle registration, reading up on political news and casting votes, washing our bodies and clothes, maintaining and repairing our homes, paying our bills, entering passwords, and creating accounts for software.

Then, on top of that consider how much time we spend briefly “killing time” between commitments by scrolling on social media, watching videos, playing games, or sitting at the bar wondering if our date is going to show up.

Sure, our lives are longer. But how much are we actually living?

To me, this is the Price Of Progress: we exchange the quality of our days for a higher quantity of days.

And what’s the result?

We’re fucking miserable. But at least we get to be miserable for several decades, right?

If you’re anything like me, I know what you’re thinking: “Fuck This Shit™.”

Don’t Waste Your Life

Time is weird. It seems to expand and contract according to how much you focus on it. It grinds relentlessly away at life, and yet, some animals are immortal, and others can extend their stay on this material plane by hibernating through the toughest seasons.

Even stranger, your thoughts are almost completely unbound from time. You can think about time in a similar way to how you can think about space by casting your “mind’s eye” forward and backward across four dimensions of experience.

  • You can reflect on the past, reinterpreting it, even deleting or fabricating memories
  • You can contemplate the future, predicting and projecting what can or should happen
  • You can imagine a present different than the one you’re experiencing, along with an alternative past or a fantastical future
  • Weirdest of all, you can remember what you once imagined about the future, and you can wonder about what you will eventually remember about the past

So, why does all this matter? Because the time you spend living is only as rich and full of joy as you want it to be.

You can choose to make the most of the time you have, or you can “check out” from your life, sleeping, shitting, and working your hours away, and filling the moments in between with as many distractions as you can pay for with your income.

You can choose to spend your days doing things you love and honing yourself into the best version of “you,” or you can chase escapism.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know what’s right. I can’t teach you how to live appropriately. I can’t even tell you what it means to live appropriately.

However, I can tell you one thing which might help you: life will slip away from you if you let it. It will pass you by until eventually you look back and wonder, “What did I do with my time? Was it really worth it?”

If you’re worried about what your answer will be when you finally ask yourself this question, then there is only one thing to do. Live immediately.

Do what you would do if you were who you want to be. You do not need permission from anyone to love yourself.

If you’re concerned about the value or morality of the life you’re currently living, then examine yourself now, while you can. Use philosophy as a tool to examine yourself from multiple perspectives. Test your perceptions against logic. Plunge the depths of your feelings.

Life only gets shorter each day. Don’t waste it.

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” ― Seneca

Memento Mori.


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