This essay took me a bit longer to deliver than normal. Part of that is because this was a tough essay to crack but I was also happily busy writing another newsletter!

I am now writing for Transform Fitness where I am documenting my fitness journey and how I am getting stronger as I learn Gymnastics Strength Training. I will probably share some of that writing here down the road but for now I am just happy to share that I am writing for other audiences. I love working out with them and learning how to use my body in ways that I never thought possible.

There are lots of words that we think are synonymous but probably are not meant to be used to describe the same phenomena. "Progress" and "innovation" are an example.

Progress implies a kind of net improvement in a situation. When I think of progress I think about an idea that improves the human condition; increasing our capacity and ability to connect and express ourselves.

  • The printing press improved our ability to share ideas and store knowledge.
  • The telegram improved our ability to rapidly communicate over long distances.
  • Penicillin cut our deaths from infectious diseases down miraculously.
  • Equal rights and universal suffrage allows everyone, at least in theory, to have a say in how they are governed.

You get the picture.

Progress doesn't mean that every aspect of life has been improved with the advent of a new technology:

Despite those negatives we can say that these developments were a net positive for society because they advanced the cause of human expression and life.

Without a doubt the iPhone 15 is quantifiably better than the iPhone 6. But does that mean that we are better off because of this or other similar innovations?

I doubt anyone would reasonably argue that the constant release of iPhones is proof of progress so much as proof that Apple needs to constantly pursue profit. Profit seeking isn't automatically immoral but when the changes are touted as some kind of major improvement all I see is hype.

The Gartner Hype Cycle for technologies

The group that benefits the most from the innovation hype cycle are financial stakeholders that reap profits resulting from our obsession with novelty.

As a teacher I have been a part of multiple "educational innovations". I began my teaching career around the time when "No Child Left Behind" passed in 2001.

No Child Left Behind is dead. But have states learned from it? - Chalkbeat

I saw greater emphasis placed on state exams and a subsequent decreased confidence in teachers as test scores became the primary metric of success.

I was there for "Race to the Top" as states competed for federal aid in return for adopting the common core curriculum and other federally backed initiatives that attempt to standardize teaching across states. The greater standardization of curricula reduced the overall diversity of what was taught.

The History of Education timeline | Timetoast timelines

There have been other initiatives; Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core, Laptop for every child, Whole Language Theory, Social and Emotional Learning, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). All of them claimed to be educational disruptors. I don't think that any of these innovations have led to any kind of meaningful progress.

In the realm of science I recall several innovation hype cycles in my adult life:

  • The Human Genome Project, back in June of 2000, was going to be the next frontier of science. President Clinton described the completion of the human genome project as "the most wonderous map ever produced by humankind". Next to no changes or improvements on a clinical level have occurred.
  • In 2012, IBM announced a partnership with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Watson supercomputer. IBM was going to use "Big Data" to transform the way we target cancer. This era of smart drugs that would target cancer, based on the cancerous cells genetic sequences, has not panned out yet. Worse, Watson made "unsafe and incorrect" recommendations. In 2022, after billions of dollars spent, Watson was sold for parts.
  • For the past 25 years we have touted the possibility that stem cells would cure or repair damage to our bodies from normal wear and tear. Other than some clinics in Florida and Latin America stem cell therapy mostly remains in the realm of future promise.

The business world has seen lots of hype trains but here are a few that stand out:

  • The dot com bubble: Companies like were given insane valuations simply because of their .com status and clever marketing. The company went bankrupt 268 days after its IPO to be one of the shortest lived public companies in history.
  • Crypto: It is difficult to say what Crypto is worth but of the estimated 3 trillion in value that is held in some form of crypto, about 11 billion has been stolen in crypto heists. Another 27 billion has been stolen in pump and dump schemes.
  • NFTs: Non Fungible Tokens, basically digital art made with blockchain, were hyped and created a 17 billion dollar trading volume and are currently valued at about 80 million just two or three years later.
  • Then came AI; that will be the subject of a future essay but I ultimately believe it will be as useful as any of these other innovations.

More often than not, innovation is about creating the illusion of progress in order to foster continued economic spending.

We are so enthralled by the novelty that technology offers that we ignore the boring things we already know can foster incredible progress:

  • A clean diet made from real food, consistent exercise and limited consumption of alcohol, tobacco and processed junk would probably eliminate most of the issues related to diabetes, which is a significant comorbidity in as much as 60% of chronic illness in hospitals.
  • There is significant evidence that suggests that kids are significantly less likely to read for fun compared to even a decade ago. This is far more important than making sure every kid has a smart tablet or learns to code in middle school.
  • Most people are underinvested and have not learned about how compound interest works. Consistent investing that compounds over decades is a far better opportunity for building long term wealth than gambling in Bored Apes or whatever other 21st century Tulipmania activates our FOMO.

Innovation is easy to promote in news cycles and by celebrities. People can get excited and throw themselves into a project that they genuinely believe is going to revolutionize their life. But most of these technologies are more likely to enrich just a few people and offer dubious value to everyone else.

The human condition hasn't fundamentally changed over thousands of years despite significant technological change. What we need to be thriving human beings is fundamentally the same:

  • We need safe and secure homes and people who love us to protect us and nurture us when we are in our childhood.
  • We need caring people to help temper our impulses and steer us into productive virtues and habits in our early adolescence.
  • We need expertise to guide us into a field that we find compelling and role models to emulate in our early adult years.

The story of human development is always going to be one that requires human contact and learning. When we focus on any other means of delivering education at the cost of the human experience we offer substandard education.

Ask any parent who tried to have their kindergarteners learn online during covid what a miserable experience that was for everyone involved. We will never be able deliver excellent education to a six year old via Zoom because six year old's need to play with other kids to learn and take their cues from someone who is in the room with them.

I don't think it is a coincidence that so many silicon valley parents put their kids in Waldorf Schools that eschew technology. The people that have created the technology that is destroying our attention span and our ability to discern fact from fiction do not want their children to suffer that fate.

Meaningful learning will always be human centered. Observing reality as accurately as we can, engaging with the best that mankind has created, and thinking critically so that we can offer our own unique contributions is what is required to be well educated today and it is what will be required to be well educated in the centuries to come.

Hopefully it will not be only the wealthy who are able to afford that luxury.