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Are we progressing or regressing?

11th May 2018

After another successful Breakfast Club in April, our Communications Manager shared his thoughts on a question spanning topics including war science technology media politics … Are we progressing or regressing?


The likelihood of me switching on the news, opening a social media platform, or skipping through a newspaper and being flooded with stories of doom and gloom from around the globe is pretty high. It often makes me wonder whether the world I am living in now is safer, more stable, more informed than my parents’ generation, or their parents’.

It’s easy to feel that it’s one conflict after another and a litter of awful governments in power across the globe (no names mentioned), employing terrible foreign policy and destroying crucial services. But in terms of science, medical practices are unquestionably the best they’ve ever been and technological advances are improving lives globally. So surely we’re heading in the right direction?

During April’s Kruger Cowne Breakfast Club, our guests, BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson, CBE and human reproduction specialist Lord Robert Winston provided some fascinating insight from their respective fields. The advances they’ve witnessed, the regressions and where they see it all going.

Lord Winston began by emphasising that super-fast progress hasn’t always been a given. It took 96 thousand years before writing was invented, but now, still possessing the same genes as those early homo sapiens “the progress of the human mind is so rapid that we have no way of predicting where we’re going to be in the next five years’ time.” His point being that the speed of progression now means that as a consequence scientists are being trained to “know more and more about less and less”.

Thanks in part to things like the evolution of social media, in 2018, we are falling deeper into a bitesize culture, something John Simpson might attribute to shrinking attention spans. In his line of work big topics are being tackled in 280 characters or within 15 seconds. In contrast to around 40 seconds during the 70’s. In John’s experience, 40 seconds “is enough time to get a coherent argument going and to back it up with a certain limited amount of evidence.” It seems bizarre that in a time with so much information at our disposal, our experts are being taught to give us less. Ignorance really isn’t bliss.

John’s career has taken him to 140 countries, reporting on 46 wars. I was eager to hear his take on the threats the UK are facing and if the posturing from the likes of Russia is genuine?

John reasoned: “I’ve lived more than half my life under the apparently imminent threat of all out thermonuclear war and that collapsed finally in 1991 and the world is a more peaceful place since then. It may not seem it. I started work in 1966 and there were at least twice as many wars going on in 1966 as there are today”.

It’s not an opinion shared by all. I recall an interview Sir Bob Geldof gave last year where he remarked that he had never seen the world so “fractious, vociferous, fragile or fearful”.

In my lifetime I’ve probably been exposed to more acts of terrorism than all out wars, or at least the reporting of these has reached me more frequently. This supports a point John made on reporting, “the whole notion now has moved away from ‘what should I want to know about what’s going on?’ to ‘what am I interested in?”.

As for Russia … John witnessed first-hand the Russian superpower under the Soviet Union and insists today what we are seeing is a “greatly diminished country” unconvincingly attempting to show it’s still a major force.

Politics will always be incredibly divisive and regardless of your political leaning, it’s hard to be overly positive in the present or the future. Lord Winston was irked when saying “There was a time we respected our politicians much more, they were valued more. I think we’ve diminished parliament in the public eye. That’s been very bad for society in many ways. I don’t think we understand we need to be getting much better people into the representative democracy we have”. It’s hard to argue with that.

So in conclusion to my earlier ponderings. I’m still torn. I’m reassured by John’s outlook on Russia and war in general, but I do empathise with Sir Bob’s take on our fractured world. Technological and scientific advances, regardless of how impressive and innovative, are only worthwhile if they sustain progression. The time and character limitations on our media are hugely concerning and when this notion is transferred to our professionals learning, it’s very worrying. What’s the point of so much progression when regression seems to be walking hand-in-hand with it?

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