Good Times

Are we making progress? Ignore the gloomy intellectuals and look at the facts.


In some intellectual circles, it is fashionable to dismiss the idea of progress, the notion that social, political, and material conditions for the mass of humanity are getting better. Langdon Winner, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recently asserted at the International Forum on Globalization's Teach-In on Technology and Globalization that "all indices of performance are improving, but the world is not getting better." He added that this "used to be called progress, which we don't hear much about anymore."

New York University social critic and author of Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman once dismissively declared that "America has developed a new religion, as it were, and the religion is its faith that human progress and technological innovation are the same thing." The ranks of progress skeptics include such notables as Jacques Ellul, Christopher Lasch, Herbert Marcuse, Chellis Glendenning, Lewis Mumford, Jeremy Rifkin and many others.

Despite the skepticism of these and other disaffected intellectuals, the evidence supports the notion that there has indeed been a lot of progress, by which I mean substantial improvement in the quality of and prospects for human life. To be sure, we are not talking heaven on Earth. But relative improvement? Absolutely.

Let's review the evidence. Probably the most concrete measure of progress is the vast increase in human life expectancy over the past century. Demographers believe that global life expectancy in 1900 was around 30 years. By 1950 it had increased to 48 years. Today, global life expectancy is 66 years and is expected to rise to 73 years by 2025, according to the World Health Organization. The really good news is that the difference in life expectancy between the developed world and the less-developed regions of the globe has narrowed dramatically from more than 25 years in the early 1950s to around 11 years today.

The burden of disease has also lifted considerably. The annual number of deaths among people under age 50 fell from 21 million in 1955 to about 10 million in 1997. Deaths under 50 are expected to decline further, to 5 million, by 2025. This is an extraordinary improvement in human health since world population in 1955 was 2.8 billion and is now over 6 billion.

For those worried about population growth, the average number of children a woman has over the course of her lifetime has dropped from just under 6 in 1960 to 2.9 today. If current fertility trends continue, U.N. population figures suggest that world population is likely to top out at a bit over 8 billion and begin to fall by the middle of this century. As important, women (and men, too, in their own fashion) have more control over their fertility.

Widespread famines are thing of the past. Global food prices have dropped by 50 percent since 1960 largely because food production increased at faster pace than population growth.

Between 1820 and 1992, the world's economies grew 40-fold. More recently, world gross domestic product tripled from $9.5 trillion in 1970 to $29 trillion in 1998. Average wages in America tripled in real terms from $8 per hour in 1949 to $24 per hour today. Without minimizing the hardships that many Americans face, the good news is that poverty in this country isn't what it used to be. Michael Cox, an economist at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, points out that of those households officially below the poverty line, 97 percent have color TVs, and two-thirds live in air-conditioned dwellings and have microwaves. Seventy-five percent own VCRs and own at least one car. Forty-one percent own their own homes, and 50 percent own stereos and almost all have refrigerators and cooking stoves. The poor in the U.S. today have a higher standard of consumption than the average household did in 1971. (See "Buying Time")

Humanity's inventiveness has exploded too. In 1790, when the U.S. Patent Office opened its doors, it granted just 3 patents. By 1882, the Patent Office had issued serial number 50,000 for its patent applications. Of course, the 19th century was the century which saw the invention of the steamboat, the railroad, the telegraph, the mass market newspaper, nitroglycerin, the germ theory of disease, chemistry and the periodic table of elements. In 1899, the year when patent serial number 700,000 was assigned, the Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office famously recommended that his office be abolished because "Everything that can be invented has been invented." How wrong he was is illustrated simply by noting that at the end of the year 2000, the patent serial number 9,471,932 had been assigned.

In 1900, the few thousand existing automobiles were the expensive toys of the very rich. By 1950, there were 70 million vehicles. Today, there are more than 500 million-one for every 6 people on the planet.

In 1975, the United States had 200,000 of the world's total of 300,000 computers. Today there are 160 million computers in use in America-51 percent of U.S. households have personal computers, up from 24 percent in 1994. Today, there are 557 million computers in use worldwide. In the past 40 years, global computing power has increased a billion-fold. A Ford Taurus contains more computing power than the multi-million dollar main-frame computers used in the Apollo space program.

Today, the 100 million mobile phones used by Americans are one-third of the total 300 million mobile phones in use worldwide. By 2005, as many as 1.6 billion people will be cell phone subscribers.

The internet is used by 423 million people and that is expected to rise to over 1 billion by 2005. Two years ago, former vice-president Al Gore told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting that there were only 4 websites when he took office. Now Google searches 1,346,966,000 web pages.

Since 1970, 4,355 new drug applications have been filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And at the dawn of the 21st century, scientists have sequenced the human genome, and the genomes of many other important species, opening up fantastic possibilities for further improving human health and crop production.

Today, 92 percent of primary school age boys and 88 percent of girls are in school worldwide. Even in the lowest-income countries, the comparable figures are 89 percent for boys and 82 percent for girls.

Progress is not confined to the material and technological sphere. Liberty too has increased. First, one should keep in mind that the centuries-old evil of slavery was essentially abolished in the 19th century. The 20th century saw a dramatic increase in democratic governance. According to Freedom House, there were no nation-states that met its definition for being fully democratic in 1900. "The states with restricted democratic practices, not universal suffrage, were 25 in number and accounted for just 12.4 percent of the world's population. In 1900 monarchies and empires predominated," notes Freedom House.

In 1950, there were 22 democracies, accounting for 31 percent of the world's population, and an additional 21 states had restricted democratic practices, accounting for 11.9 percent of the globe's population. Today, 120 of the world's 192 countries are electoral democracies and constitute 62.5 percent of the world's population. At the same time liberal democracies–that is, countries which Freedom House regards as free and respectful of basic human rights and the rule of law–are 85 in number and represent 38 percent of the world's people.

MIT social critic Leo Marx once tendentiously asked, "Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?" Let's just say that the evidence of history strongly suggests that improved technology is a prerequisite for progress, both material and social. Before modern technology, poverty, tyranny, and ignorance were the lot of most people. Technology enables more and more people to pursue the humanitarian goals of justice, freedom, and self-fulfillment than ever before.