Humility in the Face of Progress

One of the primary reasons to study history is to put our current moment in context. By looking backward, we can learn what is possible when we turn to look ahead.

The New Deal, for example, serves as a model for the kind of sweeping legislation that is theoretically possible for America to enact. Amidst rampant inequality, the New Deal reminds us that we have the capacity to fundamentally reshape our society, if we choose.

This holds true for technology as well. Consider the fact that these two images were taken just 66 years apart:

Image of the Wright brothers' first flight next to an astronaut standing by an American flag on the moon

Mathematical physicist Lord Kelvin famously commented that β€œheavier-than-air flying machines are impossible” in 1895, just eight years before the Wright brothers' first flight.

And the English Astronomer Royal Richard van der Riet Woolley declared that spaceflight was "utter bilge" and wrote in a 1936 review of P.E. Cleator's book Rockets Through Space:

The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space] . . . presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author's insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished.

21 years after Woolley β€” an expert! β€” wrote those words, Russia launched Sputnik into space.

Reflecting on technological progress reminds us that things that look impossible today might be commonplace just decades from now. This perspective invites a certain humility when assessing the current landscape.

The most remarkable thing about Woolley's comments is that he actually considered the airplane's evolution from impossible to actuality. Still, he rejected even the possibility of spaceflight.

Today, technologies like blockchains and augmented reality might look relatively useless. But as Clay Christensen pointed out, new technologies are often dismissed as toys.

And the rate of progress is only accelerating. Someone currently in their 20 or 30s might reasonably expect to witness even more dramatic developments than the progression of the first flight to landing on the moon.

To deny that possibility is to ignore the incredible innovation that has come before.


Reflections on creating systems to sustainably grow your impact on the world.
Email address