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 transcontinental railroad was the first to link the US east and west. Prior to the railroad, to travel from coast to coast could take six months, whether by land or sea, and the journey was hard and perilous. California was like a foreign colony, separated from the life and industry of the East. The railroad changed that completely, taking a six-month journey down to a matter of days.
At 5 A.M. on Saturday, a Central Pacific train pulled into Sacramento carrying celebrants from Nevada, including firemen and a brass band. They got the festivities going by starting their parade. A brass cannon, the very one that had saluted the first shovelful of earth Leland Stanford had turned over for the beginning of the CP’s construction six years earlier, boomed once again.
The parade was mammoth. At its height, about 11 A.M. in Sacramento, the time the organizers had been told the joining of the rails would take place, twenty-three of the CP’s locomotives, led by its first, the Governor Stanford, let loose a shriek of whistles that lasted for fifteen minutes.
In San Francisco, the parade was the biggest held to date. At 11 A.M., a fifteen-inch Parrott rifled cannon at Fort Point, guarding the south shore of the Golden Gate, fired a salute. One hundred guns followed. Then fire bells, church bells, clock towers, machine shops, streamers, foundries, the U.S. Mint let go at full blast. The din lasted for an hour.
In both cities, the celebration went on through Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.
The Brooklyn Bridge, 1883
The Brooklyn Bridge did not connect a distance nearly as great as the transcontinental railroad, but it too was met with grand celebrations. An excerpt from David McCullough’s The Great Bridge:
When the Erie Canal was opened in the autumn of 1825, there were four former Presidents of the United States present in New York City for the occasion—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—as well as John Quincy Adams, then occupying the White House, and General Andrew Jackson, who would take his place. When the Brooklyn Bridge was opened on May 24, 1883, the main attraction was Chester A. Arthur. …
Seth Low made the official greeting for the City of Brooklyn, the Marines presented arms, a signal flag was dropped nearby and instantly there was a crash of a gun from the Tennessee. Then the whole fleet commenced firing. Steam whistles on every tug, steamboat, ferry, every factory along the river, began to scream. More cannon boomed. Bells rang, people were cheering wildly on every side. The band played “Hail to the Chief” maybe six or seven more times, and as the New York Sun reported, “the climax of fourteen years’ suspense seemed to have been reached, since the President of the United States of America had walked dry shod to Brooklyn from New York.”
Not only did they celebrate, they analyzed and philosophized:
What was it all about? What was everyone celebrating? The speakers of the day had a number of ideas. The bridge was a “wonder of Science,” an “astounding exhibition of the power of man to change the face of nature.” It was a monument to “enterprise, skill, faith, endurance.” It was also a monument to “public spirit,” “the moral qualities of the human soul,” and a great, everlasting symbol of “Peace.” The words used most often were “Science,” “Commerce,” and “Courage,” and some of the ideas expressed had the familiar ring of a Fourth of July oration. …
… every speaker that afternoon seemed to be saying that the opening of the bridge was a national event, that it was a triumph of human effort, and that it somehow marked a turning point. It was the beginning of something new, and although none of them appeared very sure what was going to be, they were confident it would be an improvement over the past and present.
The celebrations culminated with an enormous fireworks show:
In all, fourteen tons of fireworks—more than ten thousand pieces—were set off from the bridge. It lasted a solid hour. There was not a moment’s letup. One meteoric burst followed another. …
… finally, at nine, as the display on the bridge ended with one incredible barrage—five hundred rockets fired all at once—every whistle and horn on the river joined in. The rockets “broke into millions of stars and a shower of golden rain which descended upon the bridge and the river.” Bells were rung, gongs were beaten, men and women yelled themselves hoarse, musicians blew themselves red in the face.
Comparing this to another accomplishment we’ll return to below, McCullough writes:
In another time and in what would seem another world, on a day when two young men were walking on the moon, a very old woman on Long Island would tell reporters that the public excitement over the feat was not so much compared to what she had seen “on the day they opened the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Electric lighting, 1879
The electric light bulb was perhaps not met with parades or fireworks, but it did attract visitors from far and wide just to see the marvel. From Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth:
Few, if any inventions, have been more enthusiastically welcomed than electric light. Throughout the winter of 1879–1880, thousands traveled to Menlo Park to see the “light of the future,” including farmers whose houses would never be electrified in their lifetimes. Travelers on the nearby Pennsylvania Railroad could see the brilliant lights glowing in the Edison offices. The news was announced to the world on December 21, 1879, with a full-page story in the New York Herald, opened by this dramatic and long-winded headline: EDISON’S LIGHT—THE GREAT INVENTOR’S TRIUMPH IN ELECTRIC ILLUMINATION—A SCRAP OF PAPER—IT MAKES A LIGHT, WITHOUT GAS OR FLAME, CHEAPER THAN OIL—SUCCESS IN A COTTON THREAD. On New Year’s Eve of 1879, 3,000 people converged by train, carriage, and farm wagon on the Edison laboratory to witness the brilliant display, a planned laboratory open house of dazzling modernity to launch the new decade.
The polio vaccine, 1955
Rails, bridges and lights were celebrated in part because they greatly relieved the burdens of distance and darkness. Another burden was lifted in 1955 when the polio vaccine was announced.
Polio terrified the nation, much more so than diseases such as tuberculosis that were actually much bigger killers, for a few reasons. It struck in unpredictable, dramatic epidemics. The epidemics were relatively new starting in the late 1800s; it was not a disease that had been widespread throughout history, such as smallpox. It left many victims paralyzed rather than killing them, so its results were visible in the form of crutches, braces, and wheelchairs. It targeted children, striking fear into the hearts of parents. And it could not be fought with the new weapons of cleanliness and sanitation, which were successful against so many other diseases. This added guilt to the fear, as parents of polio victims obsessed over what they had done wrong in failing to protect their children.
So it’s understandable that the entire nation was eager to hear the news of a vaccine, and went wild when it was achieved. From Breakthrough: The Saga of Jonas Salk, by Richard Carter:
On April 12, 1955, the world learned that a vaccine developed by Jonas Edward Salk, M.D., could be relied upon to prevent paralytic poliomyelitis. This news consummated the most extraordinary undertaking in the history of science, a huge research project led by a Wall Street lawyer and financed by the American people through hundreds of millions of small donations. More than a scientific achievement, the vaccine was a folk victory, an occasion for pride and jubilation. A contagion of love swept the world. People observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes, kept their traffic lights red in brief periods of tribute, took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or convoked fervid assemblies therein, drank toasts, hugged children, attended church, smiled at strangers, forgave enemies….
The ardent people named schools, streets, hospitals, and newborn infants after him. They sent him checks, cash, money orders, stamps, scrolls, certificates, pressed flowers, snapshots, candy, baked goods, religious medals, rabbits’ feet and other talismans, and uncounted thousands of letters and telegrams, both individual and round-robin, describing their heartfelt gratitude and admiration. They offered him free automobiles, agricultural equipment, clothing, vacations, lucrative jobs in government and industry, and several hundred opportunities to get rich quick. Their legislatures and parliaments passed resolutions, and their heads of state issued proclamations. Their universities tendered honorary degrees. He was nominated for the Nobel prize, which he did not get, and a Congressional medal, which he got, and membership in the National Academy of Sciences, which turned him down. He was mentioned for several dozen lesser awards of national or local or purely promotional character, most of which he turned down.
Not all of this happened on April 12, 1955, but much of it did. Salk awakened that morning as a moderately prominent research professor on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He ended the day as the most beloved medical scientist on earth.
There had been celebrations like this for athletes, soldiers, politicians, aviators—but never for a scientist. Gifts and honors poured in from a grateful nation. Philadelphia awarded Salk its Poor Richard Medal for distinguished service to humanity. Mutual of Omaha gave him its Criss Award, along with a $10,000 check, for his contribution to public health. The University of Pittsburgh was swamped with thank-you notes and “donations” addressed to Dr. Salk. His lab was “knee-deep in mail,” a staffer recalled. “Paper money [went] into one bin, checks into another, and metal coins into a third.” (How much was collected, and who kept what, was never fully divulged.) Elementary schools sent giant posters—WE LOVE YOU DR. SALK—signed by the entire student body. Winnipeg, Canada, site of a major polio epidemic in 1953, sent a 208-foot telegram of congratulation adorned with each survivor’s name. A town in the Texas panhandle bought him two heartfelt, if comically inappropriate, gifts: a plow and a fully equipped Oldsmobile 98. (Salk gave the plow to an orphanage and had the car sold so the town could buy more polio vaccine.) A new Cadillac arrived and was donated to charity. Colleges begged him to accept their honorary degrees. Newsweek lauded “A Quiet Young Man’s Magnificent Victory,” insisting that Salk’s name was now “as secure a word in the medical dictionary as Jenner, Pasteur, Schick, and Lister.”
Hollywood wasn’t far behind. Three major studios—Warner Brothers, Columbia, and Twentieth Century-Fox—fought for the exclusive rights to Salk’s life story. Rumors flew that Marlon Brando was angling for the lead—an odd choice, most agreed, but a sure sign of box office pizzazz. Salk wisely told them no. “I believe that such pictures are most appropriately made after the scientist is dead,” he remarked, “and I’m willing to await my chances of such attention at that time.”
Politicians embraced him. One senator introduced a bill to give the forty-year-old Salk a $10,000 annual stipend for life. Another proposed the minting of a Salk dime, just like FDR’s. (Both ideas went nowhere.) Governor George Leader of Pennsylvania gave him the state’s highest honor—the Bronze Medal for Meritorious Service—before a cheering joint session of the legislature (which soon created an endowed chair for Salk at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School with a princely stipend of $25,000 a year). On an even grander scale, the U.S. House and Senate began the bipartisan process of commissioning a Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award. Salk would become only the second medical researcher to receive one, joining Walter Reed of yellow fever fame. The two men were in good company. Previous honorees included Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, General George C. Marshall, and Irving Berlin.
Hundreds wrote President Eisenhower to request a special White House ceremony for Salk. … On April 22 Jonas and Donna Salk, their three young boys, and Basil O’Connor arrived at the White House to meet the president. … The Rose Garden ceremony that day would not soon be forgotten. Few had ever seen Dwight Eisenhower struggle with his feelings in such a public way. “No bands played and no flags waved,” wrote a reporter who had followed Ike for years. “But nothing could have been more impressive than this grandfather standing there and telling Dr. Salk in a voice trembling with emotion, ‘I have no words to thank you. I am very, very happy.’”
… The banner headline in the Pittsburgh Press on April 12, 1955 had set the tone—POLIO IS CONQUERED. The stories that day spoke of mothers weeping, doctors cheering, politicians toasting God and Jonas Salk.
Steven Pinker, in Enlightenment Now, after quoting some of the passage from Richard Carter above, adds: “The city of New York offered to honor Salk with a ticker-tape parade, which he politely declined.” Speaking of which—
Historic flights, 1920s and ’30s
I looked up the history of ticker-tape parades in New York City. Wikipedia has a list. These seem to have been most common from about 1926 to 1965, with multiple parades a year in that period (except when the US was fighting WW2, when there were none), compared with less than one a year on average in the years before or since.
What was celebrated? Mostly politicians, military heroes, visiting foreign leaders, and occasionally sports champions. (There was one parade for a musician, Van Cliburn, after he won the Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition.)
However, the 1920s and ’30s saw over a dozen parades celebrating aviation achievements, including Charles Lindburgh and Amelia Earhart:
1926, June 23 – Commander Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett, flight over the North Pole
1927, June 13 – Charles Lindbergh, following solo transatlantic flight.
1927, July 18 – “Double” parade for Commander Richard Byrd and the crew of the America; and for Clarence Chamberlin and Charles A. Levine following separate transatlantic flights.
1927, November 11 – Ruth Elder and George W. Haldeman following flight from New York City to the Azores.
1928, April 25 – Hermann Köhl, Major James Fitzmaurice, and Baron von Hünefeld following first westward transatlantic flight
1928, July 6 – Amelia Earhart, Wilmer Stultz, and Louis E. Gordon
1930, September 4 – Captain Dieudonne Coste and Maurice Bellonte following flight from Paris to New York City.
1931, July 2 – Wiley Post and Harold Gatty following round-the-world flight.
1932, June 20 – Amelia Earhart Putnam following transatlantic flight.
1933, July 21 – Air Marshal Italo Balbo and crew for flight from Rome to Chicago in 25 Italian seaplanes.
1933, July 26 – Wiley Post following eight-day round-the-world flight.
1933, August 1 – Captain James A. Mollison and his wife following westward transatlantic flight, from Wales to Connecticut.
1938, July 15 – Howard Hughes, following three-day flight around the world.
1938, August 5 – Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan following flight from New York City to Ireland (he was scheduled to fly to California).
During the early space program, there were also several NYC ticker-tape parades for astronauts—not just the Apollo 11 heroes, who went on a world tour after the Moon landing, but missions before and after as well:
1962, March 1 – John Glenn, following the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission.
1962, June 5 – Scott Carpenter, following the Mercury 7 mission.
1963, May 22 – Gordon Cooper, following the Mercury 9 mission.
1965, March 29 – Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John Young, following the Gemini 3 mission.
1969, January 10 – Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, and William A. Anders, following the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon.
1969, August 13 – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, following Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.
1971, March 8 - Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, and Stuart Roosa, following Apollo 14 mission to the Moon.
1971, August 24 - David Scott, James Irwin, and Alfred Worden, following Apollo 15 mission to the Moon.
And much later:
1998, November 16 – John Glenn and astronauts of Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-95.
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. Plenty of people still get excited by science news, new inventions, and breakthrough achievements—especially in space, which has a strong “coolness” factor. Noah Smith polled his followers, and ~75% of respondents said they “celebrated or got very excited about” the Mars Pathfinder landing in 1996. More recently, many people in my circles were excited about the SpaceX Dragon launch a few months ago. But a minority of geeks excitedly watching live feeds from home doesn’t compare, in my opinion, to the celebrations described above.
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.
Here are a few hypotheses for why there haven’t been any major celebrations of progress in the last ~50 years:
• There haven’t been as many big accomplishments. We haven’t gone back to the Moon or cured cancer. We haven’t solved traffic or auto accidents. This is the stagnation hypothesis.
• The progress we have made hasn’t been the kind that lends itself to big public celebrations. 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.
Similar explanations seem to apply to achievements in the past. For instance, in contrast to the polio vaccine, I can’t remember reading about any celebrations of Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine. The concept of vaccines (and even inoculation, the technique that preceded vaccination) was too new and too controversial. It took time for everyone to believe and accept that the vaccine worked. A century and a half later, after the germ theory was established and there were many clear successes of fighting disease with science, the public was ready to celebrate the polio vaccine.
Take another example, the Haber-Bosch process. This was certainly one to celebrate, but I don’t recall any parades or fireworks for it. Again, it seems perhaps too technical and removed from what the general public could get excited about.
• People celebrate things differently now, maybe in less formal and public ways. As noted, the ticker-tape parades in NYC waned after the mid-1960s. In an era of telecommunications, maybe people don’t have as much of a need to get together in large groups? Maybe 21st-century celebration takes the form of something getting ten million likes on Facebook?
I have a hard time buying this one. We still hold parades for sports championships, launch fireworks for the Olympics, and gather in large groups for New Year’s Eve. I think there is still a psychological need for big, public celebrations.
• We just don’t appreciate progress as much as we used to. I’m not sure we need this hypothesis, in that I think the first two explain all of the observations so far. But I believe it, because it matches a broader trend of waning enthusiasm and growing skepticism and even antagonism towards progress. As a thought experiment, can you imagine Presidential speeches and a brass band at the opening of a bridge today?
What will happen for future achievements?
OK, you might say, bridges have become commonplace. What if it wasn’t a bridge, but the first space elevator? Would that be met with celebration? Or opposition? Or a yawn?
Or take a less sci-fi example. How will we greet the COVID-19 vaccine, when it arrives hopefully in the next year or two? Will people “ring bells, honk horns, blow whistles, fire salutes, drink toasts, hug children, and forgive enemies”? Will they “name schools, streets, hospitals, and newborn infants” after the creator?
Or what if Elon Musk succeeds with a manned mission to Mars? When the first Martian astronauts return, will they go on world tour like Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins?
I don’t know. Maybe! It will be interesting to see.
Related: I wish people still wrote poems about major achievements. Everyone knows the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, but it seems like that wasn't an isolated thing. For example, the man who designed the Golden Gate Bridge wrote:
As harps for the winds of heaven, My web-like cables are spun; I offer my span for the traffic of man, At the gate of the setting sun.
(Apologies because I know this comment isn't really engaging with the post itself.)
I propose a more banal explanation for the spontaneous parade element: it's against the law.
Parades require permits and extensive logistical planning.
There are no cannons left to fire, and few bells left to ring
These things have steadily eaten into even long established holidays or other celebrations, like Halloween, the Fourth of July, or the Woodward Cruise.
I also am inclined to finger the attention economy; a huge civilizational accomplishment is unlikely to contain any particular surprise by the time it is completed, because it will be preceded by years of predictions, missed deadlines, scandals, conspiracy theories, etc. All of these will be just as accessible to the public at large as the event itself; I feel like there is probably some effect where people's interest is sort of smeared over all of these and therefore the success announcement falls short of the jubilation-in-the-streets threshold.
I found this article interesting: https://www.thegentlemansjournal.com/25-iconic-moments-that-define-the-21st-century-thus-far/
It lists several events that caused large celebrations. However, you can notice a pattern: 2008 — Barack Obama wins the 2008 election, becoming the first African American President 2011 — Commandos conduct a raid in Pakistan, which ends with the killing of Osama bin Laden 2012 — The US rover, Curiosity, takes a selfie on Mars 2014 — Malala Yousafazi becomes the youngest ever recipient of a Nobel Prize 2015 — Same-sex marriage is legalised across all fifty states in the USA
Almost all were political or nontechnical.
Personally, I think that most kinds of modern technology are highly incremental, and as of recent have been treated with suspicion.
I also could imagine that real technology change has slowed down a fair bit (especially outside of AI), as has been discussed extensively.
Agreed on tech change. We now expect a new generation of video game consoles every five years, a new version of Microsoft Office every three (but did NOT expect the name change to "Microsoft 365," an increasingly ominous claim of ubiquity), and new phones every other year.
The only real technological surprise I've had in a good long while was yesterday when I suddenly realized Notepad.exe now has a "New Window" menu option, which simply spawns another instance of Notepad. To me, this is cause for celebration, and I find myself wondering why there wasn't more fanfare for this superb productivity hack.
I think very few people celebrate scientific/technical achievements. Those people weren't celebrating the achievement per se, but their country/nation or perhaps the individual(s) who did that. Feelings of national (and sometimes even individual) pride are becoming more and more politically incorrect; so as the sense of belonging fades away people also celebrate less and less
Since national pride is decreasing, the pride of scientific accomplishments seem to be mainly relegated to, well, the scientists themselves - geeks and nerds.
That reminds me of this Scott Aaronson post (https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=87). Unless the science "culture" changes or everyone else does, it seems like there will be a limit on the amount of people who would be willing to celebrate technical achievements.
It will be interesting to see if the antivax movement dimishes its spread if COVID-19 ends up being eradicated from countries where vaccination campaign have been led, and is still killing left and right in countries where antivax and distrust of science is common.
Especially, it would mean that the cost of antivaxxers will be enormous to the country. Maybe this would incentivize government to act more on it.
Do not underestimate the creativity of conspiracy theorists. Allow me to give you a summary of Russia-sponsored conspiracy broadcast in my country:
If you compare the ratio of infected people to dead people in Italy and Germany, you see the mortality is different by an order of magnitude. That clearly shows the numbers are made up.
The people who "died of COVID-19" in Italy were actually victims of vaccination.
The people who "died of COVID-19" in Italy were actually old people, who had their 81-st birthday in spring 2020, which is an expected life length there, which means they all died of old age. It's just that doctors found that in some of their bodies the corona virus was present (but not a cause of death), and the Western media misinterpreted this to create a mass hysteria.
The people who "died of COVID-19" in Italy were actually victims of air polution from Italian factories. That explains why they had lung problems.
COVID-19 is actually less fatal than flu or common cold. Scientists all over the world support this fact. Even WHO admitts that people who died of COVID-19 this year are a tiny minority of overall deaths worldwide in 2020.
Stuff like this circulates on social networks, along with warnings not to give children face masks, because face masks cause infections (which is exactly what Big Pharma wants, so that they can sell you the cure later). What actually helps is vitamins C and D, and most importantly, positive thinking and avoiding negative messages from mainstream media!
...so, I don't really see how numbers of dead people could convince anyone. You can always attribute them to a different cause. And on the English-speaking web, people still celebrate Swedish "success", don't they?
It's going to look like it's coming from newhere but here's one opinion.
There is something strange when people take a large dose of some serotonin agonists : they think that the universe is wonderful and life has a purpose or something like that. They basically find purpose and emotion in something, without usually being able to rationnaly explain it afterwards.
Reading about someone who apparently had enough cortex to become an MD then somehow linked 5G to viruses makes me think : is there the possibility of a neurological [bug/change/disorder] where extreme purpose is derived from some random factual event?
To me it could potentially be the same system. The "purpose finder" system.
I am not convinced. I feel there could be a huge variance in how people actually believe there conspiracies. And it look extremely hard to estimate it.
Of course I have no doubt that there are/will be people that actually believe these things. But it could be that the proportion of people who believe them is small while the proportion of people who don't believe it but are now doubting is large.
I have never been entirely convinced that it's implausible that there is a majority of the conspiracy theorists that are actually susceptible to a cognitive bias that is typical of people that have never encountered bayesianism :
When they face a new idea like "putting facemask will kill your children", they integrate that facemasks are risky, but don't compare it to the alternative : "do I think covid is risky?". The consequence is that those people are now in doubt and will prefer the status quo (not using masks), not that they actually believe that trump is actively disseminating poison on facemasks. This can be reinforced by the bias that riskiness can be felt as correlated to how frequent you hear about how dangerous it is, ignoring the actual risk.
And your argument that I should not underestimate their creativity as I can see from how crazy their facebook propaganda is seems invalid to me. It seems quite possible that in 5-10 years we'll see that those ads were mostly funded by [foreign governments/rich minority with X or Y interests] fueling political instability. This would explain that the propaganda we see is actually crazier than the current state of what most conspiracy theorists actually believe.
But I'm rather new here, so I'm guessing this has already been treated extensively. I would be very thankful for good essays on the proportion of hardcore-conspiracy-theorists vs people who know doubt and stay in status quo.
Glad I got my point across, I was really not sure it was clear.
My position is that this matter is complicated and it looks hard to gather more data. For example I can't see a satisfying way to make surveys about what those people think. Especially : the "conspiracy theorists" that are actually prone to doubt could be so susceptible to this bias they if you ask them about the president being a lizard they would answer of course without actually believing it prior to the survey. (Maybe something to do with a very short term attention span coupled with a paranoid tendency?)
An idea I had been thinking about was maybe trying to survey not what they think, but how incoherently they think. Like saying that the moon landing is true but the earth is flat, or the earth is round but there is no gravity etc. But I haven't thought too much about this.
But anyway, I definitely try not to be optimistic either. The problem is hard. I think the propaganda I see is actually probably crazier that people's actual beliefs. But in case people are that crazy : it's so dangerous and important that it should definitely not be ruled out.
Good point. The discussion too often revolves around the death/recovery opposition and forgets permanent damage.
Still, I'm not convinced a vaccine is necessary. HCQ seems to be an efficient treatment when administered early, before the virus has done much damage, and for that reason the chance of permanent damage is probably lower than with patients who need to be hospitalized.
Perhaps progress has accelerated so much that we've become a bit numb?
If you come from an assumption that progress is accelerating, it would stand to reason you could get celebration/awe fatigue if the introduction of something wonderous was so commonplace that wonder itself became habituated.
One reason for the lack of celebration may be our increased awareness of negative effects. When the railroad was completed, or the bridge built, nobody worried about the environmental costs.
Another reason is "low-hanging fruit". Speeding up the time to get from New York to San Francisco from 6 months to 6 days required a steam engine and a lot of steel. Speeding it up to 6 hours took heavier-than-air flight and jet engines. Going from 6 hours to 6 minutes will take a lot more work.
The internet is a big deal, but as mentioned elsewhere, it is not a singular event. Nobody had a ticker-tape parade when libraries were invented, or when they reached a certain percentage of towns.
One possibility that could perhaps link all your hypotheses is widespread marketisation. Since the time of the Apollo program more and more domains of production (cultural, academic, scientific, technological, etc.) have been restructured around market incentives, effectively pinning innovation to consumer demand. So when you talk about long lines for iPhones as a desire for a product rather than a public celebration, this might actually tell the whole story: the consequence of marketisation is a redirection of innovative energies away from collective projects and into the satisfaction of individual desires. We don't really experience iPhones as contributing to a shared sense of progress, but rather we each experience our iPhone as a small bit of personal progress. Similarly, when a nation state you identify with (both social-historically and practically via taxes or whatever) puts someone on the moon, you actually do have something to celebrate - in a real sense it is partially your achievement. But when Elon Musk lands on Mars you may be impressed, fascinated, awed, but what reason do you really have to celebrate this achievement, given that it is yoked to someone else's private interests? (And regarding Covid-19, isn't the suspicion underlying all the conspiracy theories just that public measures conceal private interests?)
Obviously whether you take this to be a bad thing or not will be sensitive to your opinion of capitalism. From an enthusiastic perspective collective goals were just abstractions for aggregates of individual goals anyway, and the fact that we engage in them less now just testifies to the success of markets in bypassing clunky centralised mediators to satisfy desire directly. From a more sceptical (e.g. Marx-inspired) perspective collective and private goals might be fundamentally at odds with one another, in which case the privatisation of desire would represent a genuine force of stagnation.
Perhaps what has waned is merely the ticker-tape parade and a certain form of newspaper reportage. Parades are inconvenient for traffic and not that much fun, so why spend the money? We seem to expect our newspapers to serve more of a social criticism function. Not “Yay, a new COVID-19 drug!” but “Who’s going to be profiting off the new COVID-19 drug?”
As Don Draper said to Peggy when she asked for a thank you, “That’s what the money’s for.”
Additional hypothesis: everything is becoming more political than it has been since the Civil War, to the extent that any celebration of a new piece of construction/infrastructure/technology would also be protested. (I would even agree with the protesters in many cases! Adding more automobile infrastructure to cities is really bad!)
The only things today [where there's common knowledge that the demonstration will swamp any counter-demonstration] are major local sports achievements.
(I notice that my model is confused in the case of John Glenn's final spaceflight. NASA achievements would normally be nonpartisan, but Glenn was a sitting Democratic Senator at the time of the mission! I guess they figured that in heavily Democratic NYC, not enough Republicans would dare to make a stink.)
Promoted to curated: I think the question of what society celebrates, what causes celebrations, and what people's common narratives of progress are, is pretty important and this makes some initial progress on answering it. I also like the empirical nature of this post and have been thinking about this for quite a bit since it came out. I also have a lot of related thoughts on this topic that are related to this, for which I am confident that I will want to use this post as a reference if or when I finally get around to writing them up.
When it comes to bridge opening ceremonies, bridge openings like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge seems to have a big ceremony. Do you have data that suggests the ceremonies of such projects are smaller then the celebrations that you talked about? Otherwise, maybe the issue is just that China which builds big infrastructure has celebrations for it and our big infrastructure projects in the West don't inspire celebrations (it would be quite ironic to have one when we opened our airport in Berlin this year).
Disclaimer: this comment includes a lot of speculation on philosophy and art movements that I myself don't have an in-depth understanding of. Please take this with a grain of salt. If anyone reading this understands the matter better and sees me saying BS, please correct me.
I think that one thing that can be helpful to examine is postmodernism. As Jean-Francois Lyotard had originally described it in the late 70s, it is "incredulity towards metanarratives". For Lyotard this meant rejecting the idea that the world is described or describable by some unified model. He criticized both capitalists and marxists, which were two sides of the big ideological struggle of his time, for trying to assert that there is a single and universally true vision of society and money and power and how to handle those. He also criticized science, which he said had turned from "truly producing knowledge" to "performativity" and churning out self-contradictory results, which to him meant that the "metanarrative" of science explaining the world was fake and discredited.
Now, Lyotard later rejected some of these ideas and admitted he did not have a very good understanding of the sciences he was trying to criticize, but his work was influential and the notion of skepticism towards big universal narratives (including scientism) took hold in the French intellectual sphere and birthed the entire movement of postmodernism.
These are things I'm relatively (see disclaimer) confident in. From here, we have to make two assumptions to get us somewhere relevant to your question. First, assume portrayal of some event in art has influence on its public perception, including this event being celebrated or not (I'm quite confident in this assumption). Second, assume Lyotard's ideas had influence not only on philosophy, but also on art (I'm less confident in this - in fact, Lyotard borrowed the term "postmodernism" from art critics, who were using it before him, and I'm not familiar with anything about postmodernism in art that would scream rejection of science and technology - maybe aside from that postmodern artists are broadly understood as rejecting modern ones, and Bauhaus, an art movement obsessed with glorifying technology, is broadly understood as modernist).
If these assumptions hold, we have something like an answer to your question - if the artist starts with the abstract notion that there is no universal rhyme or reason to the world that humans could discover, they will not create works that glorify discovery or science, and thus will not spur public celebration.
When I first read the original post, I thought of how in culture there seems (to me) to be a drop off of passion somewhere in the 1970s, and that postmodernism kind of goes with that. Passion about something that happens is more powerful if it really is -- if things no longer seem to be as firmly to us, there is less passion. From a naive outsider point of view, it looks like Buddhism softens is as well, so the hypothesis that celebration follows being could be tested by seeing if Buddhist countries have as intense of celebrations about progress, or anything in general.
But then I see in the comments people talking about how there were celebrations and excitement in America in the last 50 years -- maybe not as big, but still significant. Maybe postmodernism doesn't affect sports fans as much, or minorities who see their first president, or space fans?
Scientific and industrial progress is an essential part of modern life. The opening of a new extremely long suspension bridge would be entirely unsurprising- If it was twice the length of the previous longest, I might bother to read a short article about it. I would assume there would be some local celebration (Though not too much- if it was too well received, why did we not do it before?), but it would not be a turning point in technology or a grand symbol of man's triumph over nature. We've been building huge awe inspiring structures for quite some time by now, and the awe has worn off. Innovation and progress is normal.
Celebration in terms of "Bells are ringing and the people are weeping and philosophizing" requires complete upsets. Reusable rockets, manned missions to mars, a COVID-19 vaccine, etc- those are all part of the current state of affairs. If humanity wants these things, and has the time, I know they will come.
Not sure this explains anything, just a thought. We're too grown-up.
We know the world is big, and improving things takes time, and no single action does much to shift the balance. So we keep waiting.
And it doesn't help that there are problems today that we already know will not be solved completely and utterly by any specific date. E. g. whale extinction; it's not that the thing literally cannot be "solved" at some point in the future, it's more of a "we keep running into our own limitations of both the knowledge and the international cooperation required to do it, and we have become used to the delays". At least a bridge is a bridge, you can count on it being built sooner or later.
Although on the other hand, we aren't grown-up enough. "Whales seem to be going extinct no matter what has been done about it" is an achievement of science, yet I haven't heard of anyone celebrating that.
I mean, the very expected misuse of antibiotics is producing superbugs. And knowing that superbugs are being produced is very, very valuable for us in the future. But people somehow aren't breaking into song.
So it seems to me that the examples of exuberance in the OP had to do with celebrating "the goodness of man" as much as "the power of science", and the former is a different problem today.
I think we should look at the demand side, not the supply side. We are producing lots of technological innovations, but there aren't so many major problems left for them to solve. The flush toilet was revolutionary; a super-flush ecological toilet with integrated sensors that can transform into a table... is much more advanced from the supply side, but barely more from the demand side: it doesn't fulfil many more needs than the standard flush toilet.
I have a strong feeling that Stuart is right here, that is, “there are problems to solve” but it does not equal “people are pumped about it being solved”. This is to say that if clean water and cost-effective methods of sanitisation are problems in Dharawi, people living there will be happy if Bill Gates’s cheap water sanitisation project provides them with cleaner water at a lower price, but won’t be enthusiastic in a celebratory way, for they realise the commonplace-ness of having access to clean water from travelling to more developed areas in Mumbai as workers and labourers. Even if they do celebrate, it will be of the “I am happy that happened” kind. I have spoken to a lot of people from there and life to most of them is work, get exhausted, go to sleep; if a problem arises, tackle it then; and most of them resort to make shift solutions that work well for them.
That was in the context of poverty management(the ones who you say earn less than 2$ per day — note PPP in India or other poorer countries to subsist), but if you mean complete alleviation of poverty and diseases, then again I would say that we are at a stage where none of that would receive celebration of the ceremonial kind, for we know that most ailments are resolvable/preventable to a great extent, and the ones that we might resolve, which currently seem unresolvable will just be another one. I feel we really need something revolutionary, something that hasn’t entered our consciousness yet for it to mean anything to a larger group than just the suffering of select few to see a prolonged celebration. And for it to enter the realm of ritualistic and traditional celebration, it definitely has to be unforeseen.
I feel that framing matters here. For eg. Look at how the words tradition and celebration complement one another in some of these situations. In the case of Olympic fireworks or Times Square gathering, how much effect does the instinct to preserve a long-standing tradition come into play? but when you look at scientific accomplishments it is too disparate and of varying significance to even be equated with the likes of Olympics or a New Year’s Eve. I have a strong feeling that to be celebrated, an event must either form a part of an existing (celebratory) tradition or create a new one, which is also why I feel Nobel(Old) and Twitter trends(New) are an equally interesting celebratory methods unless one wishes to restrict the definition of celebrations to rallies and fireworks. In this case the former being traditional/ceremonial, and the latter unconventional/momentous like the railroad project or light bulb of modern times, which is seen through the occasional burst of congratulatory enthusiasm in the form of a hash tag or likes.
On a related note, I have wondered why there are events like "the draft" for professional sports, but there is no corresponding event for individuals who are top of their class at intellectual activities. There is also no obvious arena where people are allowed to demonstrate their intellectual prowess in order to attract the attention of recruiters. In general, we are missing a system of education which celebrates the people who are the best and the people who have the most potential.
No celebration since it doesn't really have a clearly defined date, but I'd argue it is relatively recent and may have impacted society more than any of the events you listed. It's amazing that the majority of humans on earth now have access to such a wealth of information.
Those were the days when we invested in ourselves–or at least in our infrastructure.
We stopped that in 1980 and began assets-stripping, cutting education and research year after year, and reducing social support for the needy.
The Chinese took the opposite tack and have been celebrating all kinds of things. Next year, they'll celebrate the fact that everyone in the bottom 50% income bracket will own a home and have an income, plenty of food and clothes, safe streets, health insurance, a pension, and old age care.
They'll also celebrate the fact that their children graduate from high school three years ahead of ours and live longer, healthier lives.
They'll be puzzled by (but not celebrate the fact that) there are now more drug addicts, suicides and executions, more homeless, poor, hungry and imprisoned people in America than in China.
Do you have sources for that? From what I can tell, China had 1000 executions to 22 in the US in 2019. Also life expectancy and suicide rate seems to be worse in China, not better. I didn't check the others.