The modern world is vastly different than all eras before it. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of history can it is very different than all that came before it. One only has to look at the past and look around at societies of today.
For thousands of years, the population grew at a stable and sustainable rate. It has since exploded at an exponential rate. The world has magnitudes of more people on it. Modernity has pushed the life span of the average person to near double what it was only a century ago. Where only the strong and prosperous lived into “old age”, it has now become the commonplace.
War used to mean meeting the enemy on the open field and killing each other in hand to hand combat. In modernity, war has many meanings. It can now mean wiping out entire cities with intercontinental missiles carrying high yield nuclear warheads. It can mean controlling unmanned aerial vehicles behind a computer screen to wipe out dozens of people in a tactical yet indeterminate air strike. All with the push of a button.
Buildings in modern cities are now taller than all eras before them. Each year that passes brings a new record holder for the tallest. Bridges can now cover distances that unfathomable before. We can broadcast a thought to the entire world in an instant. It once took a single letter took years to reach the other side of the globe. Clearly, modernity has brought humanity to new heights of progress.
However, progress is not a given. Imagine an Italian peasant in the 9th century. Looking in his village, he could see ruins of an empire that came before him. The architecture contained therein was clearly beyond anything his own society would be able to produce. The buildings were stronger, more beautiful, and more enduring. They were the product of a society long past.
These great ruins were built by his ancestors. The society that created them inhabited the very lands he now does. This society possessed something that his does not. This wisdom was lost long before he was ever born. All he can do is look at the ruins. He can do nothing that can replicate their past grandeur.
The peasant’s society has lost the technology that was used to create the ruins. The word technology comes from the Ancient Greek tekhnologia. It is comprised of the roots tekhne, meaning skill, and logia, meaning study or practical application. A literal translation of tekhnologia would be the practical application of skills.
This is what most people mean when they speak of progress. They mean modern technology. The skill to create new and ever more complex tools. The ruins once held a significant purpose to the society that built them. To the peasant, they only serve as a remind of what once was.
Modern man can look back to the accomplishment of his ancestors as well. The accomplishments of the ancients are many. While modern buildings might be taller, modern warfare more deadly, and modern travel faster, there are still many great things that modernity has ignored in pursuit of technology.
Modernity focuses on the tangible and the immediately recognizable. In many cases, it has sacrificed much to achieve this. When modern man looks at an impressionist painting, hears a romantic opera, or reads an ancient novel, he will experience something similar to what the Italian peasant felt looking at the Roman ruins. He knows they are something that his society cannot reproduce. For all of the progress of modernity, it still lacks the essence that made past societies great. Until modernity learns this, all of its technology is doomed to triviality. Technology is forever a means, not an end in itself.