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The Ups and Downs of Advancement

Driverless cars riding atop antiquated, pot-hole filled roads, and other dichotomies


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Recently I visited a friend in one of those ubiquitous new high-rise apartment buildings sprouting up all over the place. While riding up in the elevator, I got to thinking about advancement. I wrote a story about elevators more than 30 years ago in one of Denver’s earlier economic booms because it occurred to me that with all of the new skyscrapers then going up, the elevator business must be pretty good.

It was.

This time around, I am sure the elevator business is on the rise, but I was thinking about advancement on my recent ride. The elevator I took was nice, but it struck me that it wasn’t all that different than the four dozen or so I rode back in the 1980s for my elevator business story. The doors open, you walk in, push a button, and you are whisked to a higher floor in a short time, assuming some kid or giant elf doesn’t push all of the bright buttons and turn the express into a local. But back in the 1980s when I was conducting elevator research, I didn’t have a phone/camera/computer/video screen/internet portal in my pocket. Considering all of the technological advances the phone has taken in the ensuing 35 years, shouldn’t a 2018 elevator simply teleport me from the lobby to the sky deck? 

It seems that on some things, we are getting the shaft on technological advancement. I mean, sure, yeah, people have developed driverless cars – car technology is moving swiftly – but when we get our highly artificial-intelligent chauffeurs, they will be taking us around on roads and bridges that have been around for decades with no technological advancement whatsoever. Heck, forget technological advancement — the roads and bridges have no advancements at all. Indeed, some of the potholes in Denver have been around since the early 1980s. And the bridges? You really don’t want to know.

The same thing can be said, quite obviously, about trains. The world has high-tech, super luxurious bullet trains capable of speeding people from place to place at a breathtaking pace, but as we have seen at least three times just in the past few months, passenger trains are operating on dangerously outdated rails and railroad crossings. While the train technology advances, the technological advancements on the necessary infrastructure have been derailed for years and years. And often when these trains jump the tracks or go too fast, the word is that there is some newer technology available that could have prevented catastrophe that wasn’t installed on that train or was used improperly by the human operators.

Technology, and investment in high-tech research, can be a beautiful thing. I looked up advancements in medicine, for instance, and just in the past couple of years, there are wondrous developments underway and on the horizon that have made huge differences for people who suffer from a wide variety of cancers, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism and many more conditions. There is expensive and highly advanced research being done to develop new drugs that can treat disease or even prevent it. Medical breakthroughs are coming at a rapid pace, and they have the potential of saving many, many lives.

Meanwhile, almost nothing is being spent and little done to attack the biggest health crisis in America: legally prescribed opioids and illegal street opioids like heroin. I read a report of one study that estimated the overall costs of the opioid epidemic in America – including medical care, dependent care, law enforcement involvement, lost productivity, et al – could exceed $1 trillion. Talk about crumbling infrastructure! While medical advancements can and do save lives, parts of the medical establishment are complicit in the opioid epidemic that took the lives of 64,000 people in 2016 – more than guns and car accidents.

So what we see is that advancement – technological or otherwise – is highly selective. We as a people, as a society, are capable of amazing things, but we also have an enormous capacity to ignore nagging, and obvious, problems.

Visionary businessman Elon Musk recently sent a red sports car into space where, he said, it will “coast comfortably for hundreds of millions of years.” That’s amazing. Here on Earth, Tesla roadsters will require new shock absorbers every year.

This all occurred to me in an elevator which, you can plainly see displayed on every floor, has an up side and a down side. Like everything else.

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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