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How much progress can we handle?

Essay by Martha Quillen

Modern life – October 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Remember Eli Whitney and his cotton gin?

Children had to learn about that invention because it changed history. Before Whitney’s gin was patented in 1794, only coastal cotton was commercially viable. But Whitney’s invention could get the sticky green seeds out of cotton grown in the interior, and thus, many southern states became major cotton producers.

Most historians think that southern antebellum society — with all its trappings, like Greek revival mansions, overdressed belles, indolent gentlemen, and slaves — flourished because the cotton gin salvaged the rural south’s economy. Largely due to the cotton gin, slavery endured, and a rivalry for political dominance developed between the agricultural south and the industrial north. Finally, sabers clashed and cannons boomed.

It’s impossible to know what would have happened if Whitney, a New England industrialist educated at Yale, had decided to take up oil painting as a career. A cotton gin might have been invented by someone else a year or two later, or twenty years later. Yet even a modest difference may have changed history if beleaguered Southerners had continued to move away from supporting slavery.

Hence, the cotton gin shows that a single invention can have a profound effect on culture, customs, political alliances, everyday life, and long-term history. And that concept can be a disturbing when you consider the number of inventions our culture spawns every year, from microchips to modems, faxes, cellular phones, video games, microwave ovens, talking cars, and industrial robots.

This month, we publish an article that makes one reflect on technological change. That story, by Lynda La Rocca, features Marie Coombs, editor of The Saguache Crescent, which is still a letterpress newspaper set on two Linotypes. To understand the difference between old-fashioned letterpress and modern offset production, see page 29.

But to imagine how profoundly technology has transformed newspapers in this century, it’s enough to know that the Linotype appeared several hundred inventions ago. Which gives one a lot to think about. If a single invention can have a profound effect, what effect can several hundred inventions have? And more importantly, what effects do major technological changes have on us?

Narrowing the field to journalism alone, the possible societal impacts of technology are staggering. To cite a few examples:

Some social critics believe we are moving into a post-literate era, where oral and visual media will control information. Reading comprehension and attention spans are declining among Americans, and will continue to decline. Unfortunately, newspapers and magazines are also implicated in the trend, since they now use more photographs, more art, more color, flashier graphics, and showier type. Before offset reproduction became prevalent in the 1960s, however, such a reliance on visual contents would have been extremely costly, if not impossible.

Furthermore, modern techniques make photographs easier to modify. Today, it doesn’t take much expertise to enhance disaster footage by brightening the fire, darkening the sky, adding a little smoke — or just downright faking the whole thing. But eventually, photographic hocus-pocus may lead to a population that doesn’t believe anything without viewing it first-hand.

Perhaps more important than photos, however, are technological changes in information gathering. Consider all those computer-generated stats. It used to be said that statistics don’t lie, but that liars use statistics. That was bad enough, but now it seems that, given enough statistics, we’ll be able to prove that it’s not safe to eat, drink, or breathe anything.

Satellites mean information from China or Bosnia can be in your home in minutes. Unfortunately, however, it’s still hard to get information from around the corner. At this point, some experts fear that the glut of information from war zones and inner cities is increasing the paranoia of Americans. If they’re right, we may all end up living in gated communities or behind barred windows, (presumably some of those bars won’t be on prisons).

And then there’s computerized polling. These days, the coverage of up-to-the-minute polls seems to take precedence over anything the candidates say or do. So why do we have representatives at all? In a move toward democracy, why don’t we just ditch the government, and let polls decide the issues?

I wonder how technology has affected writers and editors. Once upon a time, many weekly editors doubled as printers. In the old days, journalists seldom learned their trade in college; they learned it by working their way up. Now, however, the editorial offices of many major metros aren’t even in the same buildings as the presses. Thus, college-educated writers often work in antiseptic office buildings without ever rubbing shoulders with craftsmen, tradesmen, or laborers.

Which leads me to wonder if unions and blue-collar workers have come upon difficult times because the media neither understand nor empathize with their plight. The media seem pretty sanguine about the loss of blue-collar jobs and middle-class incomes, even though traditional American life may be destroyed by that trend.

But enough about the drawbacks of technological progress. Although I haven’t included any potential benefits of technological change, in all likelihood, there will be more good consequences than bad.

Besides, it would be foolhardy to stop progress, or even slow it, when the next invention may be the one to expedite world peace. Moreover, the cotton gin didn’t sink the South; it made the region prosper.

Southerners, however, refused to see the limits of their sudden bounty. The international unpopularity of slavery was known to them. By 1850, Americans had already encountered two centuries of abolitionist sentiment. There had been periodic slave revolts and rebellions in the new world, including a particularly bloody uprising in nearby Haiti.

Cotton planters should have recognized the short-lived nature of a slave-dependent economy — while they could still invest their profits in manufacturing.

But instead, southerners fought for their right to keep slaves, to have fugitive slaves returned, and to establish slave states in the western territories.

Apparently people don’t change much.

Today, the rich fight for their right to free trade, unregulated banking, and to do business in Mexico, China, Russia, Korea, and the Middle East — with full government protection. The middle classes support the wealthy by waving the flag, and spouting sentimental platitudes about the American way. And the lower classes arm themselves and dream of rebellion.

If our present scenario ever leads to disaster, we can blame the situation on the technological developments that nourished international business, banking, and currency speculation.

But the real problem is greed. Historically, human beings tend to embrace the machine that earns them the fastest dollar. Nevertheless, maybe this time around, our technological advancements will lead us in a better direction. That, however, is assuming that we really want to go in a better direction — because, unlike hurricanes and typhoons, inventions are subject to human control.

Before Jesus, the Roman Empire, and the Greek city states, as people established trade, built towns, and created civilizations, serfdom and slavery seemed to come about almost naturally. Like insects, humans organized themselves into workers, drones, and queens, often imposing a system where humans born to bondage, would live in bondage and die in bondage, without recourse.

Not until the Enlightenment was this arrangement seriously questioned. Before that, people thought slavery was a natural condition, a lamentable, but inherent state of mankind. Then philosophers forwarded the idea that individuals had a right to liberty, and the idea spread. In 1671, the Quakers launched a vociferous anti-slavery campaign in Britain and America.

Today, even though some humans are still bought, sold, and forced into uncompensated labor, the world as a whole accepts the concept of individual liberty, and tries to enforce it as a moral imperative.

But now we seem to have reached a second tier of that concept. And another problem arises: Should men be free, only to suffer and starve?

In our time, a new notion of a right not only to freedom, but also to “opportunity” is asserting itself. It’s new; we are only a century beyond the abolition of slavery. But it’s growing.

There are problems — problems in defining how much opportunity is enough, and how much opportunity is too much — but the struggle has begun. And as always, the question of whether we expand human opportunities, or forget them in the pursuit of profits, will ultimately depend on how we use our new technology.

So here’s hoping that all of those old ad slogans weren’t just commercials — and that there really is: “A New Hope For Tomorrow,” “A Better Idea,” and “A Better Way.”

— Martha Quillen