We are surrounded by things that have been improved so much that they are inferior.
Our thesis today is that under certain circumstances the very notion of progress — bulwark of our economic system, driver of our social behavior — is flawed. At a certain point, that is, progress does not move us forward; it moves us backward. Let’s look at some circumstances in which things have been improved to the point where they now are inferior:
I am standing at a sink in an airport restroom. I am rotating my hands under a faucet that is offering me no water, in the vain hope that the automatic water dispenser will kick on. It does not. There is no manual alternative. Instead, the automatic soap dispenser to its right abruptly wakes up and spits a dollop of gummy liquid … onto my shirt. I finally move to the one sink that has not been improved by motion-sensor technology, and wash my hands. Then I discover there are no paper towels. There is an automatic hand dryer. I leave the men’s room wiping my damp hands on my pants. Progress report: fail.
My morning industry newsmagazine — which has progressed from the paper format to the new, online-only model — features an article that says my company is going to acquire Tasmania. We have no such plans. Having nothing to do but stew over such things, I decide to call the “reporter,” whom I know pretty well, since he does this all the time. “Where did you get this nonsense?” I ask him cordially. “I heard it,” he replies with some truculence. “Don’t you think you might have called to check it out?” I inquire. “Sorry,” he says. “My editors needed me to post this before all the other guys got wind of it. You know how things are now.” Progress report: ubiquitous failure.
I am staring at my in-box, which in the early days of the Internet was a marvelous source of information. Today it’s time to weed out what has become a daily compost heap. Out go the multiple stories about the Kardashians! Out go the EXCLUSIVE news bulletins about the 23-year-old star of a YouTube video who has been cast in the next Iron Man sequel! Out go the sage white papers from analysts who are selling their thoughts based on the teachings of Justin Bieber. And most of all, goddamnit, will somebody tell the mailing-list zombies that I have absolutely no frickin’ interest in attending any !@#$ webinars — ever! Progress report on the Information Age: massive failure in which our entire culture is becoming increasingly informed and progressively more stupid.
I get to the office to find that the stock market is down 245 points by 10 a.m. because of the massive gains made by computer programmers who have plumbed the mysteries of automatic cybertrading, except they haven’t. Progress report: lethal.
I am attempting to take the day off. By 8 a.m. I have 110 e-mails, so I do e-mails for a while. At 11:14 a.m., I receive a call from my boss. “I know you’re off today …,” he begins. Then he aggravates me for 20 minutes. I determine to take a long drive to the north, where the sea is shining and the crowds are few. At 2:27 I receive a text message from my assistant informing me that there is an emergency conference call about next year’s annual meeting that Bob thought I might want to be on. I join it at 2:30. It’s over at 3:40. Progress report: backward to the gulag.
My pal Jon was a very good guy until 2008. That year he received a tranche of options at a very low price, since his stock was in the toilet. With the return of the economy, his options vested and became very valuable. He is now rich. All he talks about is his money, except when he is talking about his golf club. Or his car. Or his new condo in Cabo. Or his new wife. Progress report: egregious.
Progress? Feh! Can’t we think of an alternative?
This story is from the July 1, 2013 issue of Fortune.