One of the great promises of technology is a pain-free life. Many of the great works of science fiction, from Star Trek to the Jetsons, imagine that the future is an age of miracles, where everything from cooking to transportation to work will be made effortless. Social ills like disease, racism and poverty will be eliminated all by the matchless efficiency of technology.
Of course as we’ve dipped our toes into the age of miracles, we’ve seen that technology doesn’t make people more kind or more generous. So some of our science fiction has begun to wonder if in fact this brave new world is actually good for us.
One of my favorite is the Pixar film Wall-E. It’s set in the far future, where Earth has become uninhabitable for humans. Wall-E is a cleaning robot who winds up on a spaceship, where he finally encounters the humans of the space age.
They’re… not impressive. To put it nicely.
Humans have become fat blobs who float in space, eat and watch iPads. It’s funny because it’s true – one look at a group of friends on our phones at a restaurant and we can see Wall-E isn’t far off.
I don’t want to talk about the dangers of technology.
I want to push below that to the underlying philosophical assumption behind progress: we assume that the goal of life is a pain-free existence. Because pain hurts – we call it suffering, after all, we assume it’s bad, and that we’d be better off without it.
But Wall-E offers us a caution: that a life without resistance, without work, without pain is perhaps not really life at all. I want to suggest that we can view trials and pain as other than purely bad experiences to be avoided. I want to look for the good in pain.