I am sick of Invention.
I am yearning for the day Progress decides to rest.
I am exhausted by the expectation life will get better with every new piece of technology.
I am not, however, any sort of advocate for the Unabomber Manifesto, nor a Sapiens-obsessed anarcho-primitivist who hates society and all technology and wishes to live off the grid.
Today, as I stood with friends I first met online, on a sidewalk built of concrete, all of us wearing clothes imported from across the world, an Elm City Party Bus drove by, full of the happiest people I have ever seen. They waved at us, and we waved back, made so much happier than the moment before. And every part of that delightful moment occurred because of Invention.
I see and love the science-built, technological world we live in, and I understand this world is likely not going to change, much less revert back to an agrarian state of peace. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that the last conscious moment of our species may belong to a scientist, satisfied with their successful experiment in the brief moment before catastrophe. We will die at the fast-working, ever-ceaseless hands of science—perhaps by the fist of climate change, perhaps by the slap of an Oppenheimer-esque catastrophe, perhaps by the arthritic digits of constant dissatisfaction.
I recently attended a conversation with Ling Ma, author of Severance, a 2018 novel about false prophets, the mundane, and a fungus which spreads across the world via planes and boats and nearly kills everyone. She made the observation that when the COVID pandemic hit, “we did not respond by saying, ‘Let’s take a beat,’” instead opting for, “‘Let’s figure out how to keep this going.’” While I, like all of us, am unsure how exactly the virus began, I can doubtlessly attribute both its spread and the insufficient responses worldwide in part to technology: the former through the globalized nature of travel and the exchange of goods, the latter because everybody assumed we had the technology, had the scientific ability to immediate improve our situation and allow us to “keep this going,” to keep things normal. We somehow couldn’t wrap our heads around things taking time, around the virus’s uncontrollability, around the fact we could neither control it nor toss a scientific Band-Aid onto it and move on. It’s what we do with our other problems: whether we are meeting a friend a block or an ocean away, want a hook-up or need a therapist, technology enables us to fix our problems without a second thought, even when we should take one. We have become supplicant to the convenience provided by the amalgam of scientific inventions we depend on.
But what about the party bus? Isn’t that an invention?
It’s a delight! The joy of those people drunk at 2:00 p.m., pedaling away and giggling and waving, is undeniable. But I just wish it didn’t take a party bus for people to be that gleeful—not just for reasons of carbon emissions or inebriation, but because I wish more joy could be found in the mundane. The party pedaling on the bus seemed like old friends who had run out of things to do or say and chose an experience machine to replenish the fun in their lives. Instead of allowing their lull of friendship to come and go, ebb and flow, as is typical with social groups, they tossed on a Band-Aid in order to achieve immediate results, for that is the expectation. They could not be content with the natural state of affairs.
This is the tragedy of our current civilization: we have conditioned ourselves against contentment. From corporate ladder-climbing to immediate gratification, we cannot accept stasis for any longer than a peaceful moment, we cannot accept not-knowing. If we were Sisyphus, we could not be imagined as happy, for we would push our boulder upwards always expecting the path to become less steep. Progress will not rest, for it cannot on its own; yet I think if it would, just for a moment, you would find yourself surrounded by beauty enough in the world you have, and the memories of worlds past, memories defined not by the technological improvements since, but by the glances and laughter shared amongst those you love.
Progress may not be able to rest, but we can, and we should.
Let us pause invention, put Progress into a pile of ignorance, dilute our expectations.
Let us take a beat, perhaps to repent the one we didn’t take years ago.
Let us rest.
Notice the beauty in what we’ve lost sight of while being so focused on the future: in spontaneity, in happenstance, in being lost, in the mundane which remains unfilled for even just a moment. Have you noticed? Has that beauty sunk so deep into your skin you can see that civilization is no better than it ever was, that invention only causes us more pain and discontent, that the path will never get steeper? Good. Now when that scientist thinks their last thought, you may die content.