A few days back, I watched with wonder and awe as a copter flew on the Red Planet. Witnessing Ingenuity take off from the Mars Perseverance Rover and send images all the way back to us humans filled me with an immense sense of joy and tremendous gratitude for technology and science. These are feelings we all could and should enjoy more regularly, and maybe we would if it weren’t increasingly difficult to recognize and appreciate our own reality.
So much of human progress takes place in increments, and the most meaningful strides rarely get much attention. In roughly the same length of time that we have gone from flying gliders to flying solar-powered copters on Mars, the average human life span has doubled — and we have hardly noticed as it was happening.
“The story of our extra life span almost never appears on the front page of our actual daily newspapers, because the drama and heroism that have given us those additional years are far more evident in hindsight than they are in the moment,” writes Steven Johnson, in an excellent piece in The New York Times Magazine. (It is an excerpt from his 13th book, “Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer,” which will also be a four-part television series on PBS and BBC. I’m looking forward to both, the series and the book.)
Yet, even as our progress accelerates, appreciating it becomes increasingly difficult. We live in a world increasingly informed by memes, stories, and fables. Misinformation and distrust of science are the order of the day. For their own selfish and short-term needs, our leaders willfully sow doubt in what has served us so well — science and its offshoot, technology. For example, the technology behind the vaccines created to fight the dreaded coronavirus has been nearly three decades in the making. And now it could help find solutions for many other diseases. And yet, in the media, this incredible achievement is as much a flashpoint of controversy as a source of celebration.
Sadly, the present doesn’t have the patience for progress — it is looking for a punch in the face. The world and its mouthpiece, the media is optimized around eliciting a reaction, because that is how attention can be converted into dollars. We live in a dense smog of information pollution, exacerbated by Facebook and other social media platforms, the engines of misinformation. The networks that connected us have turned communication into chaos.
“We are no longer living at human speed, but instead, are living in a world moving and beating at the speed of the network,” I wrote in an earlier piece. “As a result, our biological makeup is being put to test. How long can we live with unending dopamine hits?”
In the post-Internet society, as I’ve previously written, time and attention are all fractionalized. We live in a world of 60-second TikToks. It has reduced our ability to appreciate the long arc of time and how it rewards us. Two hundred years ago, we were lucky if we could find a horse to ride — and now we are flying copters on the Red Planet. Imagine where we could be in another 100 years, especially if we don’t stand in our own way or allow ourselves to be distracted by nonsense. You have to believe that tomorrow can and will be better than today.
In the meantime, I recommend watching this short helicopter flight and marveling at all that made it happen — and all that is to come.
May 23, 2021. San Francisco