Several hundred million of us grew up with the word: “Progress.”
John Kennedy announced an Alliance For Progress and General Electric declared that “Progress is our most important product.”
Theodore Roosevelt launched a Progressive Party, and his fifth cousin Franklin launched the Works Progress Administration.
Our belief in progress naturally led us to imagine a spectacular future. A 1956 Fortune devoted an entire issue to “The Fabulous Future.” A 1959 Newsweek predicted that we soon would enjoy automatic highways and self-mowing lawnmowers. In 1962, The Jetsons showed us a future where personal planes had replaced cars and where robots did all our housework. George Jetson more than fulfilled Richard Nixon’s prediction of a 30-hour workweek; he worked just nine.
Even Walt Disney, until then devoted to telling fairy tales from our past, leapt on the bandwagon. In 1982 he revealed EPCOT, the Experimental Prototypical Community of Tomorrow. Now 28 years later, EPCOT looks nothing like any community of today.
It’s natural that the word progress would become so popular in our country; we are famous for our optimism. But we might ask two questions about progress.
First, do we still believe in it?
For centuries, people including Plato, Sir Thomas More and Walt Disney believed in utopias. America’s utopian Oneida and Amana communities grew up in the mid 1850′s. But by the mid-1930′s, they were ghost towns. Today, a “utopian idea’ means “a total pipe dream.”
According to Google’s Ngram viewer, the use of the word progress in books has declined 31 percent since 1990. In that same period, the word “challenges” appears twice as often.
It appears that we see less progress, and more challenges.
Are we progressing? Consider three disparate areas: movies, technology, and athletic performance.
Most movie fans insist that movies have declined. One of 2010′s most-acclaimed movies, The Fighter, features brilliant actors reenacting almost every boxing movie ever made. The Kings’ Speech seems original to us, for addressing a never-before scripted subject: A King suffering from a stutter. But isn’t that’s the “Overcoming The Odds” storyline of thousands of movies?
In 2007, The American Film Institute named The Best 100 Movies of All Time. Only two of the top 50 movies had been made since 1990, while four of the top ten films were made between 1939 and 1942.
Has technology progressed? Our electric power, ships, and planes are driven by technologies that are 130, 110, and 80 years old respectively. Three technologies that changed our lives–refrigeration, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing–are as almost as old or older. Televisions have been with us for 90 years.
The computer represents a remarkable breakthrough. But our first computers appeared 70 years ago. Douglas Englebart demonstrated the mouse, email, word processing, and video conferencing in 1968. (Today, his demo is justifiably known as “The Mother of All Demos.”) America’s first mass-market PC, the Commodore PET, appeared in 1977, the year in which Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days were America’s favorite t.v. shows.
Finally, consider human athletic performance. In the late 60′s and 70′s, we became accustomed to records being broken in track and field every year.
Then what happened?
Beginning in 1896, track and field records improved steadily. But in the 1980′s, something strange happened. As Paul Kix noted in a recent Boston Globe, “In event after event, record times began to hold.”
Today, almost two-thirds of our world track and field records are almost 20 years old. Yunxia Qu of China set the women’s 1500 meter record over 30 years ago.
Together, movies, technology, and track and field records prompt a tough question:
Are we going almost nowhere, slowly?
If we are and this reality sets in, what might happen to our famously optimistic American spirit? And how will our consumer economy respond, given that it depends so much on consumer confidence?
And not least important, just when will I able to buy a robot that does all my dishes?