Why haven’t we celebrated any major achievements lately?

Why haven’t we celebrated any major achievements lately? By Laura Mezer.

In reading stories of progress, one thing that has struck me was the wild, enthusiastic celebrations that accompanied some of them in the past. Read some of these stories; somehow it’s hard for me to imagine similar jubilation happening today:

  • The US transcontinental railroad, 1869 …
  • The Brooklyn Bridge, 1883 …
  • Electric lighting, 1879 …
  • The polio vaccine, 1955 …
  • Historic flights, 1920s and ’30s …
  • Astronauts, 1962–71 …

I’m having a hard time coming up with any major celebrations of scientific, technological, or industrial achievements since the Apollo Program.

When I alluded to this on Twitter, some people suggested the long lines of consumers waiting to buy iPhones. I don’t count that in the same category: it shows a desire for a product. I’m looking for outright celebration.

It’s not that no one cares about progress anymore. … It’s also not that we don’t honor progress in any way. Formal institutions such as the Nobel prizes still do so on a regular basis. I’m talking more about ad-hoc displays of enthusiasm and admiration. …

Why? The two main hypothesizes are stagnation and the general-public-doesn’t-understand:

We haven’t gone back to the Moon or cured cancer. We haven’t solved traffic or auto accidents. This is the stagnation hypothesis. …

Celebrations are generally for big, visible achievements that were completed at a defined point and that the public could easily understand. Computers and the Internet were not obviously about to change the world when they were invented, and they did so gradually, over decades. The human genome was big science news but too removed from immediate practical benefit to cause dancing in the streets.

According to what little data we have, in England average IQ peaked sometime in the 1800s. Diversity took over from merit at NASA towards the end of the Apollo program, which was their last big accomplishment.

hat-tip Matthew