Progress

[NPR, “All Things Considered,” November 18, 1997]

What will life be like in the 21st century? A recent survey by Maricopa Research discovered that 31% of respondents, almost a third, believe that scientists will invent a way to beam people back and forth, like Scottie does on “Star Trek.” On the other hand, less than half that figure, only 15%, believe that in the next century we’ll find a way to end political corruption.

 

It’s an interesting snapshot regarding the way we think about progress. People seem confident that in the next century we’ll continue making strides in the realm of technological progress: teleport beams, personal jetpacks, two-way wrist radios. But in terms of human progress, reform of the heart and spirit, hopes are not as bright. Come the year 2099, people think, we’ll still be coping with political skullduggery. Computers may be able to sing in French and do the dishes, but no one will find a way to upgrade human software to Virtue 3.0.

 

This is the opposite of the sentiment just thirty years ago. While the early sixties embraced a dizzying dream of material progress—remember the thrilling notes of “Telstar” blasting from a transistor radio?—by the late sixties people were ready to get back to the garden. Instead of engineering more amazing gadgets, we would see *people* change. We’d be more tolerant, wise, generous, and loving. In the sixites, utopia was always just around the corner.

 

This fond hope was summed up, for me, by an incident along about 1970. I was at a friend’s house and noticed some words written in pencil on the living room wall. They read, “Don’t say ‘Oops excuse me.’” I asked Kathy about it, and she explained that the previous night she’d bumped into someone while passing through a doorway, and had automatically excused herself. Then she thought, hey, wait a minute. What’s wrong with accidentally brushing against someone? Physical contact is a good thing! It’s something to celebrate! So at that very moment she’d written this on the wall, so she’d never forget the insight.

 

The era’s human-improvement project didn’t succeed, of course. People are too fallible. While some of us were diligently remembering not to say “Oops excuse me,” others were ripping off our Dylan albums and taking more than their share of the granola. The project slowly died the death of a thousand disappointments, and was replaced—surprise!—by the re-emerging promise of technology. This time progress would be centered in computers, not outer space, but the dazzling sense of limitless possibility was the same.

 

Human nature is turning out to be just not all that perfectable, not nearly as perfectable as a silicon chip. According to the old story, it was this stubborn human tendency to lie and misuse each other that got us thrown out of “the Garden” in the first place. Can we reverse that, get “back to the Garden,” by sheer willpower? Doesn’t look likely. Most religions teach that you’ll need some external help, and that’s a humbling prospect. No wonder we prefer mastering the world of gadgets. The realm of technology may have its challenges, but the inner human landscape is far more wild.

Frederica Matthewes-Green

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

HumorNPR Commentaries