As someone who lives and works in what is ostensibly called “Silicon Valley”, I find the perspective the valley holds on “progress” rather… narrow. Progress here lacks unity, and I don’t mean it in a “big vision thematic” sense of the word, but cultural unity: the ability to bring disparate groups of people together.

Here (and elsewhere in the world), there’s an illusion of progress created by overemphasising certain properties over others. Sleekness, smallness and pocketability of technological artifacts. Yes, we now can fit in our pockets a computer that’s hundreds of thousands of times[1] faster than the 486 I first used as a 5 year old. Or obtain the play-by-play on gossip among friends. Let’s not forget the most important progress of them all: I can immortalize (or not: Snapchat) this moment, selfie style!

To discredit this as not progress would be disingenuous. Yes, they are indeed facets of progress, but of such a limited use that I want to refer us to a different kind of progress: People progress.

The collective psyche of the people we associate with–often referred to as “culture”–progress at a very different pace. No, not “slower” (or “faster”). Different.

Progress among people happen through direct and indirect contact, but contact nonetheless. Direct contact is the the face-to-face, phone-to-phone, and text-to-text type. The speed of cultural progress happens in that general order. Indirect contact happens largely through mass media and other types of impersonal associations. Loosely understood as the zeitgeist of a time: it’s the “air” about a populace, there is this osmosis-like diffusion of thoughts and conduct that permeates society organically and allows the acceptance of certain thoughts and actions while rebuking others.

When an idea becomes popular, we say it has hit “critical mass”. Direct contact among a large enough sample size of the populace has embraced this new idea. This can be exciting and rewarding–sometimes financially so for its progenitors.

Critical mass, however, does not necessarily imply unification of culture. But if the critical mass is limited to a particular demographic, be it geographic, age, race, religion, etc. then fragmentation is inevitable.

You would be correct to remark, “But progress is not uniform!”. The kind of progress needed to forge long lasting unity and avoid fragmentation does not exist. Not in the real world, anyways. We need to increase the bandwith of contact, direct contact, between ourselves and others unlike us. Only openness and vulnerability between the various groups that comprise our culture allows for unification and reconciliation. There is no silver bullet.

Let’s be excited when a startup that we happen to be part of makes it into the big leagues of the unicorns, when the new iPhone/iWatch/iThing comes out, or when self driving cars finally makes it to the commercial realm. These things are all worth celebrating.

But don’t forget that progress in the cultural sphere changes at its own pace, buffeted by our ability to be open and inclusive. The kind of progress that will matter twenty years later will be the kind we make happen today, as people, one contact at a time.

[1] I was way off with this remark. I looked up performance benchmarks of the 80486 DX2 and it can performs about 2MFLOP/s, whereas an iPhone 7’s CPU is in the ballpark of 2-3GFLOP/s (that’s a 1000x difference, not “hundreds of thousands”).

Thanks to Jimmy He, Nancy Ku, Nolan Ku and Eric Tsai for reading earlier drafts of this post and offering feedback.