Drive straight up the way and you’ll hit Progress Road, then just go till you can’t anymore. Progress dead-ends at the prison.
Many scholars argue that modernity has extinguished itself and the grand narratives of the Enlightenment have gasped their last breath. Claims of universal Progress are viewed as naïve at best, and oppressive at worst, making the hope of arriving one day at a final state of earthly perfection the “deadest of dead ideas.”22xChristopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven (New York: Norton, 1991) 41. In a period of growing consensus among scholars about the obsolescence of Progress, it seems, however, that there is still one final bastion of hope: the realm of technology. Throughout modernity, science and technology have been lauded as the critical means for humanity’s inevitable march down the road of Progress. Technology and Progress have been perceived not only to work in conjunction with each other, but also to be synonymous. It is surprising, then, to find that even as key elements of modernity crumble, contemporary forecasts about technology continue to glow with unfettered enthusiasm. Books like Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead, Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines, and Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital still become bestsellers, and the stream of utopian promises continues to grip our imaginations. To encounter such resilience of faith in technology’s benevolence is astounding, particularly in the chastening aftermaths of such technological disasters as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the space shuttle tragedies.
Further still, it seems unlikely that even the terrible events of September 11, 2001 will cause our hope in technology to waver. Writer Wendell Berry begins his essay, “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” with the forceful claim that the time will soon come when September 11th will be remembered as the day when unquestioned technological optimisim ended.33xWendell Berry, In the Presence of Fear (Great Barrington: The Orion Society, 2001). His statement perceptively points to how this recent crisis offered a horrific demonstration of both the destructive uses of technology and a chilling sense of vulnerability even in the most technologically-advanced and technologically-rich nation in the world. And yet, the events and attitudes following that pivotal day suggest that our beliefs in Progress and technology after September 11th are not so different from what they were before it.
Scholars of the dominant discourses in American cultural history have consistently noted that Progress, while losing its legitimacy in other realms of social life, continues to be a powerful ideology in the production and reception of technology. Today’s technological visions of global harmony, richly diverse societies, limitless creativity, endless productivity, and unbounded freedom echo those of the Enlightenment philosophes. The ties between the ideologies of Progress found in Enlightenment and contemporary discourses on technology have been well-studied and observed. While it is natural to presume that the impressively rapid rate of Internet adoption across the country and in all spheres of life can be largely attributed to a residual modernist zeal for technology, I want to suggest that there is more to the story.44xIn comparison to the 46 years that it took for electricity to reach 30% use in the general population (38 years for the telephone and 17 years for the television), it only took 7 years for the Internet to reach similar usage. In 2001, over 60% of the U.S. population had access to the Internet compared to 6.7% in 1995. (Jeffrey I. Cole, “The UCLA Internet Report: Surveying the Digital Future,” UCLA Center for Communication Policy, available at http://www.ccp.ucla.edu.) For excellent discussions of changing rates of Internet access and usage, see James Katz and Ronald Rice’s Social Consequences of Internet Use (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002) and Barry Wellman and Caroline Haythornthwaite’s The Internet in Everyday Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003).
A recent survey of businesses shows that up to 87% of respondents own or have access to a computer, of which 84% are online and 60% have developed Web pages. What is striking about the data from this survey, however, is that one-third of its respondents report “fear of being left behind” as the primary reason for information technology deployment. In fact, almost half of small businesses with computers believe their staff lack adequate computer skills, and 37% report that their own skills are also inadequate.55xLisa Kelly, “Fear Drives Small Finns’ Technology Choice,” Computer Weekly (26 July 2001): 8. As Margaret Wertheim has suggested, the “mere availability of network technology…is not sufficient to explain why the public has rushed to embrace [it] with such enthusiasm. People do not adopt a technology simply because it is there.”66xMargaret Wertheim, “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace,” Architecture of Fear, ed. Nan Ellin (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997) 295. While technological adoption may have been characterized by excitement in the early stages, as it has become increasingly integrated and institutionalized into our everyday lives, the excitement has taken on a new dimension. The self-fulfilling tendencies of the sweeping rush for technology has made technology “necessary” for all countries, businesses, schools, and parents now. I want to argue that the impetus behind technological adoption is not only the pull of the utopian dreams of Progress, as many observers have noted, but also the push of fear—specifically the fear of being left behind. The resulting anxiety and duress that drives so many businesses, organizations, and individuals to invest in technology are noticeably absent from the standard technologist’s dreams.
This essay takes a look at the use of the expression “being left behind” and examines how this fear dominates technological discourse and shapes our perceptions, attitudes, and practices concerning new information and communication technologies. I argue that, working alongside the utopian and optimistic approaches to technological investment, the ubiquitously expressed fear of “being left behind” expresses a deeply penetrating psychology of fear and stark fatalism at work particularly in today’s business and global environment. While the cultural meaning of Internet metaphors such as “the information superhighway,” “cyberspace,” and “information revolution” have been explored, surprisingly little has been said about the fear of “being left behind” and the subtle, but critical, ways in which it signifies key shifts in the contemporary narrative of Progress.
Keeping Up in the Information Age
For over two decades, we have been earnestly celebrating the horizons of the new Information Age. The computer—having been named “Man of the Year” by Time magazine in 1982—has since continued to be increasingly institutionalized as the signature information and communication tool of our times, transforming the very foundations of our everyday operations in government, business, schools, homes, and our personal lives. We now live in a post-industrial society, where the business of information replaces the business of manufacturing, where corporate structures of hierarchy give way to flexible networks, and as evident in the economic boom times affiliated with the Internet, where much wealth and success is to be gained and lost. While this period has been one that generates great excitement and anticipation, it is a time that breeds instability and uncertainty as well—the precise context in which discourses of fear thrive.
In the competitive and globalized environment of vertiginous and rapid growth, the prospect of “being left behind” has become a powerful rhetorical explanation for technological decision-making and adoption.
Business executives freely admit, “A lot of CIOs do feel that if they don’t spend the money on leading-edge technology, they’re going to be left behind. We’re pretty aggressive. We’ve spent a lot of money just because we need to stay in the game.”77xRick Whiting and Beth Davis, “More on the Edge,” Information Week (23 August 1999): 36. The belief that movement and change are now a constant reality has become so ingrained that having a “wait-and-see” attitude is now regarded as a formula for disaster. There is no argument against the claim that all companies need to harness the real competitive advantages of business technology or get left behind. Metaphorical images such as that of a train leaving the station, or a ship leaving its port, all work together to convey the feeling that unless expedient action is taken to keep up with the economic and technological realities of the current market, you will be left behind.88xJames Davison Hunter and Joshua Yates, “In the Vanguard of Globalization,” Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World, ed. Peter Berger and Samuel Huntington (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 347. Ubiquitous is the imperative to cease “sitting on the sidelines” and to “jump on the bandwagon” or to “get on board,” lest one “miss out,” or even worse become “roadkill” on the information highway or be “left behind in the dark ages.”99xChuang Peck Ming, “Good Chance for India to Zoom Ahead,” Singapore Times (22 April 2003). Some like Stewart Brand of the MIT Media Lab have put it rather starkly: “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”1010xStewart Brand, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (New York: Viking Penguin, 1987) 9.
Worldwide, government officials, scientists, and corporate executives are scrambling to keep up with other countries in new areas of research such as nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and stem-cell research. Being in step with the latest technological solutions grants legitimacy to countries and organizations and failing to do so means carelessly risking one’s chances in the global race for talent, capital, and ideas. Desires to be on the cutting edge, to be counted among the early adopters of a crucial technology, all echo the anxieties of competition voiced during the space race and nuclear arms race.
While those who have the advantage are quick to celebrate the unprecedented possibilities that the new information technologies might create, there are others who despair of having lost the ability to keep pace. For every inspired advertisement that rapturously proclaims how computer users are “running ahead with this incredible tool, and they’re not looking back—only forward, where a future of endless and enriching possibilities awaits them,1111xFrom the “Running Ahead with Technology” advertisement for virginia.edu, the Information Technology Magazine at the University of Virginia, Spring 2003. As seen on 16 July 2003 . there is the embarrassed confession of vulnerability. As Ellen Ullman, a computer software writer admitted:
It had to happen to me sometime: sooner or later I would have to lose sight of the cutting edge. The moment every technical person fears—the fall into knowledge exhaustion, obsolescence, techno-fuddy-duddyism—there is no reason to think I could escape it forever. Still, I didn’t expect it so soon.1212xEllen Ullman, Close to the Machine (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997) 95.
Business executives at the 2001 Davos World Economic Forum recognized that “the key to winning in business today is adapt or die, get wired or get killed, work 24 hours a day from everywhere or be left behind.” Hardly desirable, these conclusions elicited the type of frustration expressed by a Sony America executive: “Doesn’t anyone here think this sounds like a vision of hell? While we are all competing or dying, when will there be time for sex or music or books? Stop the world, I want to get off.”1313xThomas L. Friedman, “Cyber-Serfdom,” The New York Times (30 January 2001): 27.
All of these examples, whether positive or negative, not only present images of races being run, but also convey the necessity of being on the cutting edge. In these instances, the expressed fear of “being left behind” may simply tap into the basic desire to stay abreast of the latest fashions and trends. Resistance to being left behind then is a matter of maintaining solidarity through conformity. As social theorist George Simmel suggested:
imitation…gives to the individual the satisfaction of not standing alone in his actions…. Whenever we imitate, we transfer not only the demand for creative activity, but also the responsibility for the action from ourselves to another. Thus the individual is freed from the worry of choosing and appears simply as a creature of the group, as a vessel of the social contents.1414xGeorg Simmel, “Fashion,” The American Journal of Sociology 62.6 (May 1957): 542–3.
Simmel’s observations make sense of the drive for conformity during periods of great economic and technological uncertainty. This drive functions not only to enfold an individual safely within the group, but also to release an individual from culpability for his or her actions and decisions. Therefore, in imitating other organizations and countries in their technological development and implementation, one hopes to succeed in decreasing one’s risk of failure or appearing the anomaly. In the same manner in which the pressures of fashion dictate consumption in other areas of social life, individuals and organizations in the information age are nagged by direct questions such as “If you do not modernize, will you be left behind by your competitors?” At other times, popular mottoes such as “Information is Power” function subtly to inject fear and doubt into the minds of potential customers of technology. For as one observer insightfully noted,
The great thing about those three words from the perspective of someone using them to sell a product is that the unwritten or unspoken message which they bring with them plays on the prospective customer’s fear of being left behind by a competitor which has more information.1515xBilly MacInnes, “Ignorance is Bliss,” MicroScope 21.41 (8 October 2002): 21.
The practice of using fear to construct needs for the sake of private gain and profit is at the core of cultural accounts of advertising histories.1616xSee Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). Not surprisingly, within the context of a swiftly changing economy that is demanding of both endurance and vigilance, attempts to negotiate the fear of being left behind ultimately guarantee one thing only: that we are made better consumers at the end of it all. Most of us think that technology functions like the “field of dreams”—build it and they will come—but social scientists and historians have repeatedly shown how the meanings of technologies are always contested and constructed, allowing “venders of our fears” to “tap into our moral insecurities and supply us with symbolic substitutes.”1717xBarry Glassner, The Culture of Fear (New York: Basic, 1999) xxviii.
The Blend of Technological and Global Darwinism
While the fear of being left behind resonates in the business realm, it also possesses considerable currency on the world stage of globalization. For as countries throughout the world discover themselves in an increasingly interrelated network of economics and geo-politics, they are constantly forced to respond to the shifts and changes that are a consequence of new globalizing realities. In a study of globalizing elites and their discourse, sociologists James Davison Hunter and Joshua Yates found that most executives and strategists accept the fact that “anything that gets in the way of this program—whether culture, creed, or politics—needs to be either adjusted or divested. Globalization will brook no obstacles.”1818xHunter and Yates, 348. In this international sea of contrasting dynamics and emerging unknowns, the one reality that is regarded as a constant is globalization itself. It is here and it is unstoppable. Those countries that fail to adapt and make themselves indispensable in the global economy will “clearly remain behind with respect to all the fundamental needs and necessities that their population requires to have a decent quality of life.” Much of the continent of Africa faces the potential to lose “the ability to grow and expand and educate their children and feed their people and essentially move forward to the next stage of development,” should they fail to be properly positioned in the changing global economic landscape.1919xHunter and Yates, 349.
These candid comments respectively made by a Merrill Lynch strategist and vice-president of World Vision illustrate the extent to which global leaders and executives are guided by a logic of necessary adaptation. The prevailing belief is that the pressure of market competition will inevitably continue to drive further advancements in technology, quality, and cost, and that survival depends on making the expected adjustments. Titles of popular business books: Evolve! Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow and E-Volve-or-Die.com: Thriving in the Internet Age through E-Commerce Management employ the analogies of evolution to the contemporary economic world in order to communicate not only the need for organizational flexibility in an ever-changing dynamic global market, but also a Darwinian logic of the survival of the fittest.2020xRosabeth Moss Kanter, Evolve! Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2001); and Mitchell Levy, E-Volve-or-Die.com: Thriving in the Internet Age through E-Commerce Management (Indianapolis: New Riders, 2000). For the issue is often not merely a matter of keeping up with current trends in order to achieve financial success, but an imperative to adapt in order to stay alive. Those who do not meet the demands of the changing global market face the grim prospects of obsolescence and extinction.
Further compounding this fear of being left behind in the globalized world are progressive notions of development and modernization. While many scholars have adequately problematized the discourse of nations naturally “developing” and “progressing” through incremental stages of economic and political growth, such discourse fits hand in glove with the assumption that technology is necessary for a nation’s growth and establishment. Together, nation-states, markets, and technology are all assumed to be inevitable and autonomously progressing. The belief is that digital technologies act as agents which “propel our evolution into a postnational, postspatial, postembodied, perhaps posthuman community because of tactics and innovations generated by these same information technologies, regardless of larger contexts involving power, money, security, or social life.”2121xJody Berland, “Cultural Technologies and the ‘Evolution’ of Technological Cultures,” The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory, eds. Andrew Herman and Thomas Swiss (New York: Routledge, 2000) 236–7. As this example of strong technological determinism suggests, “technology, or rather the imperative of technological change, takes the place of the natural environment to which humans adapt.”2222xBerland 245.
Ultimately, the compatibility of these various notions makes it very difficult to separate out the different aspects of the technological, political, and economic systems actually involved. Appearing autonomous in its evolution, globalization becomes, to many corporations and countries, a harrowing mix of technological determinism, scientific inevitability, and economic fatalism. Stubbornly modernist in their progressive ideals and commitment to the autonomy and power of technology, these ideologies have the effect of naturalizing the processes of globalization and technological change. Little space is left for resistance or consideration of alternative possibilities. By removing any sense in which social structures of power are at work in shaping the technological and global circumstances, the imperative to avoid being left behind and adopt the latest technologies becomes experienced as an imperative driven by external forces that are self-generating and immune to any attempts of alteration.
Constructing the Technological Imperative
The rhetorical power that is amassed in the combination of evolutionary metaphors, techno-determinist assumptions, and economic realism is perhaps best demonstrated by former Vice-President Al Gore as he promoted the internet as the Information Superhighway:
[T]he choice we face as a nation is whether to embrace the opportunity for change or try to hold it at arm’s length, hoping to last long enough to survive…. In today’s—and tomorrow’s—marketplace, no information company will be able to stand intransigently in the path of change. To be rooted in one spot will be, inevitably, to become rooted in the past.... We cannot allow this country, or any community within our country, to become a communications ghost town. For to be left off the beaten track in the information age is to be cut off from the future.2323xPrepared Remarks by Vice President Al Gore to Center for Communication, New York, NY (17 October 1994), available at http://clinton1.nara.gov/White_House/ EOP/OVP/html/cntercomm.html/.
Taking for granted the apparently inevitable nature of economic competition and globalization, Gore’s words communicate a strong sense in which adaptation to the prospects of the future is an imperative. Any concern for the present is already to be left in the obsolete past. The rhetorical power of the “left behind” expression is largely generated from its rendering as a stark either/or choice: embrace and welcome technological change, or become disenfranchised from the future. Framing these choices as non-choices nullifies any agency that is presumed to be exercised in the process of technological adoption. The troubling ramification of this either/or choice is its tendency to create negatively-defined choices, where decisions are made in order to avoid bad outcomes rather than to achieve positively-conceived goals or ends. Take, for example, the situation that developed in the Arab nations in the wake of the frenetic e-commerce boom, as reported in a Newsweek article:
With Globalization here to stay, Arab leaders are welcoming information technology. Afraid of being left behind, leaders in Egypt, Jordan and the gulf in particular rush to launch Web sites and embrace e-business without giving much thought to their countries’ existing infrastructure or whether their people are equipped for cyberspace. The gulf region is running up a big tab organizing massive computer fairs, contracting topnotch computer companies and building Internet cities, but the benefit of such ventures is dubious…2424xHamond Salhi, “Now It’s Time to Get Real,” Newsweek (2 April 2001): 28.
Countless nations, corporations, and organizations have similarly chased after vaguely conceived ends in the same knee-jerk fashion. However, even should the actual benefits of investing in new technologies remain unclear, decisions to proceed with technological deployment are often justified as being inevitable and necessary actions to avoid being left behind. The vexing nature of the situation is illustrated in the following comment on the development of instore television technology: “For the past four years retailers have installed screens with little strategy, more out of fear of being left behind in a new development that promises much but has so far delivered little. The problem has been in deciding what it is for.”2525xSian Harrington, “A Knight the Media Barons Must Watch,” Grocer 226.7590 (8 February 2003): 32.
The technological imperative is by no means limited to the realms of business and government. For better or for worse, fear also plays a large role in the discursive construction of the Digital Divide in American society, particularly with regards to the availability and use of technology in education. The persistent gap between those who do and do not have access to computer technologies is a serious problem that our nation must address. Many efforts have been made to raise awareness about the sobering possibility that already disenfranchised segments of society will risk further loss of opportunities to participate in the contemporary workforce, market economy, and political processes. In many instances, the fear of being left behind is often evoked in the following manner: “Are your students ‘haves’ or ‘have-nots?’ Are they technology savvy? Or are they being left behind because your school hasn’t kept pace with technology?”2626xGlori Chaika and Gary Hopkins, “Debate Rages Over ‘Digital Divide,’” http://www.education-world.com/a_issues/ issues049.shtml/. The rhetorical power of this expression is effective in communicating the dire predicaments that the Digital Divide introduces. Most prominently employed in the title of a recent piece of education legislation—the No Child Left Behind Act—it successfully cultivates a perception of crisis intended to rally the troops, so to speak.
However, when applied to these contexts of social inequality and technology, the fear of being left behind often can have the unintended effect of turning technology into a means of conferring legitimacy on both the student and the school. Without technology, both student and school appear vulnerable to obsolescence. These tendencies towards fetishizing technology can silence more long-term perspectives about the Digital Divide’s more subtle problems of building content relevance and fostering life-long technical and literacy skills. In matters of education, while the resolute promise that no child get left behind is meant to generate confidence, the expression also can discursively function to deflect criticism by appealing to a crisis mentality. Such a psychology of crisis lends itself—as evident in the previously discussed examples from the business world—to reactionary forms of decision-making, rather than positively-defined strategies that emerge out of more thick and robust visions of education.
Being Left Behind and the Psychology of Fear
In recent years, the notion of being left behind has gained particular salience in American popular culture not because of its use in technological discourse, but because of Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” novel series that has repeatedly occupied the number one and two positions of fiction bestseller lists. Borne out of dispensationalist Christian beliefs about the End Times being inaugurated by a sudden rapture of true believers to the heavens and the leaving behind of the remainder of humanity on Earth to endure a period of geo-political and natural disasters, the 12-book “Left Behind” series has achieved an extent of success and popularity that few could have predicted. As these contemporary Rapture narratives gain a readership reaching far beyond the expected target groups of particular Christian circles, observers in the mainstream media have wondered aloud about what this “Left Behind phenomena,” as it is sometimes called, suggests about the current cultural and social psyche: “Had these books simply found a small niche audience, we could ignore them as cultural flotsam, no more or less disturbing than Guns & Ammo magazine, militia survival guides and the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult. But the ‘Left Behind’ series is not a fringe phenomenon, and the story is not treated as fiction by many of its readers.”2727xZachary Karabell, “Danger Lurks in the Fringes,” Los Angeles Times, book review, (2 March 2003): R6. Articles about the “Left Behind phenomena” appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and Time magazine, and interviews with those responding and commenting on its cultural and political influence aired on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program and CNN’s “American Morning with Paula Zahn.”
While one would be hard pressed to establish any direct relationship between the popularity of these Rapture narratives and the fear of being technologically left behind in business and global contexts, on several counts it is clear that they do share more than merely their semantic similarities. First, they share a crisis-oriented psychology. In Rapture narratives, the focal point is always the moment of crisis, when family members, neighbors, colleagues, and friends discover that an unexpected cosmic judgment has been made between those who were raptured and those who were left behind. Because these Rapture narratives aim to motivate individuals to prepare themselves to face a cataclysmic moment that determines the eternal fate of their souls, critics point out that these stories often encourage an implicit “theology of crisis, without much patience for peace and ordinary life.”2828xCarl E. Olson, “No End in Sight,” First Things (November 2002): 12. The resulting preoccupation with being prepared for such apocalyptic crisis bears considerable likeness to the motivation underlying the consumption of technology by business executives, government officials, and individuals.
Second, in both cases, salvation—whether spiritual or technological—is defined negatively, as “fire insurance,” a means of avoiding the trials of Hell or utter demise. Much like in the Rapture narratives, there are instances such as the Y2K Bug against which companies, organizations and individuals brace themselves. However, what is distinct about the “secularized” fear of being left behind is its capacity to summon forth a constant vigilance that is prepared to meet the crisis that is impending at every moment. Rather than bracing for one event, the paradigm of Darwinian evolution means that technology is always progressing autonomously and the dynamics of the global world always changing, making one constantly vulnerable to the possibility that a crisis may have already happened. You may already have been left behind.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Rapture narratives and the discursive fear of being left behind amidst technological change both assume a teleology, a progressive movement of history, but without the promise of universality. In contrast to the Enlightenment vision of universal salvation via Progress, the kind of Progress that both “left behind” accounts imply is one in which the differences are all too real between those who will be catapulted into the heavenly glories and those who will be left behind to endure the tribulations of being ill-prepared. No longer is Progress seen with the Enlightenment vision of universal utopia on the horizon. Rather, Progress bears an urgency that is characterized by a withering realism that presumes some will make it and others will not.
Conclusion: A New Narrative of Progress
Ultimately, I want to suggest that the currency that the expression “being left behind” has in contemporary culture reveals a shift in perception of Progress from a positively-defined position to a negatively-oriented one, from a universal utopian vision to one that is exclusive and fatalist. As a result, rather than summoning forth a psychology of hope or hubris, both of which were characteristic of universalist views of Progress, Progress today is colored by a psychology of fear that concerns itself with modest goals of productivity, competence, competitiveness, and in some cases, mere survival. No longer is everyone expected to succeed; some will not partake in good fortune at all. The cultural resonance of the fear in technological discourse suggests that while Progress remains the object of much faith in American and Western society, the content of that faith and belief has changed. A significant shift from utopian ideologies of Progress to fatalist ideologies of Progress has occurred. And yet, while this fear is newly characterized by a negatively-defined sense of human accomplishment, it retains Enlightenment assumptions of technological autonomy and inevitability, which function both to absolve actors from responsibility and to strip them of any agency to do otherwise. Therefore, today’s belief in Progress has perhaps different content, but preserves much of the same form—the same psychology of autonomy and inevitability, the same tendencies to naturalize social processes, and the same capacity to short circuit any consideration of other alternatives. Though contemporary goals may be comparably modest to those of the Enlightenment philosophes, they still function with the ideological force of Progress as before.
Over the last two centuries, the Enlightenment heritage of Progress has by no means been constant or static in American culture.2929xSee Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven; John B. Bury, The Idea of Progress (New York: Dover, 1932); and Robert A. Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic, 1980). A vision of social and political Progress reliant on Reason and rationalism, the ideology of Progress has evolved to become a faith in Progress based on material wealth, ever-increasing standards of living, and technology. Even as the emphases on social and political Progress were replaced by visions of material Progress, the belief in the universality of knowledge, abundance, and harmony was beginning to give way already to concessions of inequality.
Progress continues to thrive in the discourse of technology albeit, as I have sought to show, in a very different light. While the commercial hype that surrounds new technologies continues to appeal to utopian visions of Progress, the organizational and personal experience of technological adoption and use often has been driven by a fear of being left behind in this very process of Progress. Whether in the realm of economic markets, education, or globalization, the common expression of “being left behind” not only functions to signify what is at stake in a technologically-dependent world, but also actively draws on pre-existing modes of discourse, cultural resources, and ideas to shape how we think about our contemporary age. Curiously capable of straddling both traditions of Darwinian evolutionism and dispensationalist Christianity, the rhetoric of being left behind in contemporary American culture is a highly useful and persuasive force that motivates significant economic and social decisions and policy. While it carries on the heritage of Enlightenment Progress, the resonance and power of “being left behind” suggests that a new narrative of Progress increasingly shapes how we make sense of our times. No longer fed by universal hope, Progress is instead driven by fear. Where this new road of Progress will lead still remains to be seen. Yet, it is a question that warrants consideration sooner rather than later.