The progress paradox

2005

Try as he might, on a Pan-Am flight in 1953, Gerry Thomas, a marketing executive for a Nebraskan poultry company, could not figure out how to find a home for 270 tons of unused turkey. And then, as if a sign from heaven itself, he spotted something unusual, a small number of fellow passengers being served a hot dinner on a flat aluminium tray.

Not one to pass on celestial assistance, Gerry enquired further, discovered that the tray was part of a consumer test, asked if he could borrow one, and stuck it in the pocket of his overcoat.

The idea, pre-packaged, and frozen, came down like manna in to feed a nation of already enthusiastic participants of America's least strenuous exercise.

After just 10 months, the Swanson TV dinner – made up of three sections containing sweet potatoes, buttered peas, gravy, and turkey with cornbread dressing, was selling more than one million a month as housewives traded pots and pans for the convenience of television screen shaped trays.

The husbands of the kitchen-liberated, television-addicted, female TV dinner fans, wrote in their thousands to complain that their wives no longer cooked from scratch like their mothers did – a sentiment with which Mr Thomas, a gourmet cook who never ate his own product, agreed.

Did the product simply find a place in the life of the busy working woman with less time to cook? Or did it simply destroy the family meal time and damage the family itself by allowing everyone to eat in a modular way?

The TV dinner's partner in culinary crime was the microwave oven, invented in 1946 when a radar researcher, Dr Percy LeBaron Spencer, found that a candy bar in his pocket had been melted by a new vacuum tube called a magnetron. Intrigued, he experimented next with popcorn and then an egg, which dutifully popped and exploded, leading him to the happy conclusion that low-density microwave energy could be used to cook foods.

From that point, it took Dr Spencer less than a year to file a patent, slightly more than a year to sell the first - a 5½ feet tall hunk of metal costing $5000 – nearly 20 years to shrink the size and make it a $500 purchase, and just under 30 years for sales of microwave ovens to exceed those of gas ranges.

Now, half a century later, USA obesity has, we are told, "reached epidemic proportions" with 58 million overweight, 40 million obese, and 3 million morbidly obese. Worse than that, one in five American children have now joined the ranks of the unhealthily plump.

All this is aided and abetted by lifestyle changes that, according to a report in the medical journal 'Paediatrics', mean that children spend more time watching television than they do in school, exercising, or reading.

Somewhere in between watching 8,000 murders before finishing elementary school, the average child is 700 times more likely have parents who divorce than in 1900 with "ten percent of children of divorce going on to witness three of more family break-ups".

But despite all of this, the same 'average' American child has a record 77.6 year life expectancy.

All of which is to say that progress is paradoxical, complex, layered, and interconnected. It has multiple rhythms, peaks, troughs, valleys, and mountains that require an understanding of history, people, and of possibility if they are to be deliberately and successful traversed.

Everyone less well prepared is simply making efforts in the dark to enable humanity to benefit from 99.9 per cent failure rate that leads seemingly randomly to hard-won human progress.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.