Cover Story

Progress watch 2012: Smart phones, jobs returning to America, and war crimes trials

The often-slow arc of good news may not make headlines. But 2012 brought its quiet share: from extreme poverty dropping by half since 1990 to a robot with the bulky profile of an NFL player that may have a role in bringing jobs back to the US.

By , Correspondent

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    This is the cover story in the Dec. 31/Jan. 7, 2013 double issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.
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Good news is hard to find. That's partly because, no matter what the topic, there's so much distracting bad news: ongoing violence in Syria, America's allegedly imminent fiscal demise, the National Hockey League lockout. From the front page to the sports page, so little looks good.

It isn't just the cacophony of naysaying and fear that crowds out good news. It's also the nature of progress itself: Good news happens slowly. The American storytelling ethos loves narratives of overnight success, but real change isn't usually so sudden. Earlier this year, the World Bank announced that the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day – what policy wonks call "extreme poverty" – had dropped by half since 1990. That study might have been the biggest bit of good news to go overlooked this year, but consider this: Global extreme poverty was actually halved in 2010 – it took two years even to see that progress had happened.

Other highlights, too, have been subject to the long arc of incremental change. Nearly 90 percent of people globally have access to clean water, according to the World Health Organization. In Mexico, homicide rates – driven to outrageous levels in the drug wars – are down for the first time in six years.

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In The Hague, two international war criminals were found guilty in landmark rulings: the International Criminal Court convicted Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese rebel, of recruiting child soldiers. The conviction, after a two-year trial, was a first for the ICC, established a decade ago. The verdict "was the culmination of decades of hope that accountability for the most serious crimes would be achieved," says James Goldston, founding director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. "It took 10 years, but this conviction [is] an enormous accomplishment and a major step forward for international justice."

In a long-awaited verdict from a different court, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes. He is effectively the first former head of state to be convicted of war crimes. (The formal distinction goes to Karl Dönitz, who served as president of Germany for the 23 days between Hitler's suicide and the dissolution of the government after Germany's surrender in World War II.)

Not all of this year's good news comes on the heels of tragedy. In Nigeria, Egypt, and India, mobile technology is expanding entrepreneurship so quickly that small, mobile-tech-heavy businesses make up 38 percent of the gross domestic product, according to a study released earlier this year by global consultancy Booz Allen.

Americans are seeing their own mobile revolution – more than half of all Americans today use their cellphones to access the Internet, up from a third three years ago, according to the Pew Research Center. That puts the United States on the brink of a breakthrough: "Within a few years, [smart phone use] is going to be ubiquitous, and when you get that many people using smart phones, it transforms the economy, society, and politics," says Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Indeed, technology drives much of the change seen in America, even just this year. Sales of nonpolluting electric cars are surpassing expectations. And self-driving cars are now legal in California. Google conducted the first test of its self-driving car with a passenger who was chauffeured to the dry cleaner and Taco Bell. Even this flashy moment has been slower to brew than it may seem. "This has always been one of the more popular predictions about the future people were talking about in the '60s and '70s, back when they were discussing all the other sort of wide-eyed, post-cold-war futures," says Patrick Tucker, the director of communications at the World Future Society. Beyond being wide-eyed, self-driven automobiles might make passengers safer – computers are likely eventually to be better drivers than humans, Mr. Tucker says – and transform cities. Summoning one's car from even a mile away "removes the need for designing cities on the basis of the availability of on-site parking," he says. Ordering up an automobile also makes car sharing easier, which can reduce carbon emissions, he adds.

Even traditional travel by land, sea, and air has gotten safer this year. The accidental death rate for children in the US plunged 30 percent in the past decade, led by auto safety improvements such as increased use of seat belts and booster seats and safer vehicle design, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Piracy and armed robbery at sea dropped to the lowest levels since 2009, when Somali piracy spiked, reports the International Chamber of Commerce International Maritime Bureau, which attributes the decline to improved policing by international navies and onboard security measures. And in the air, there were no major commercial airline crashes in the US in 2012, the 11th year in a row, says Todd Curtis, director of the AirSafe.com Foundation.

Election season debates overshadowed some exciting news about the economy, which may get a transforming boost from a new kind of robot: Baxter, the (comparatively) affordable factory robot from Rodney Brooks, the man who brought the world the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Tucker calls Baxter "the most unique factory robot that's ever been made" because of its dexterity. "It's about the size of an NFL linebacker, and it's got two arms [that] can pick up a whole bunch of types of objects and do a wide variety of very simple tasks," Tucker says.

"That doesn't sound ... as earthshaking as it is," he concedes. But it might be a major game changer. Most factory robots can perform a few specific tasks, and they can't easily be programmed to do something else. That's why they're seen on assembly lines for cars and appliances but not on those for toys or personal electronics, Tucker says. Baxter can handle the little items that need an update every season. And that might bring some of the manufacturing that's migrated to China back to the US.

Then again, some of that labor is already returning: This year, "reshoring" entered the lexicon as a way of talking about manufacturing jobs returning to the US, usually from China. There isn't tracking of official numbers for this, but the Reshoring Initiative estimates that 12 percent of the manufacturing jobs the economy has seen return since 2010 were from abroad.

Observers caution that the reshoring trend may be a fad; more time is needed to know for sure. That brings us back to the slow pace of progress. However maddening it may be, it is also undeniable: Things are getting better.

"We're winning more than we're losing," says Jerome Glenn, director of the Millennium Project, a global futures research center and think tank. The project releases an annual "State of the Future" index, and this year's says that "the world is getting richer, healthier, better educated, more peaceful, and better connected, [and] people are living longer."

Mr. Glenn cautions that things aren't all rosy, and thumbing through any newspaper would suggest there are still plenty of world problems to make progress on. He compares it to making ice: Cooling water isn't too difficult, but turning it into ice requires serious energy. "We're at that point of going from water into ice in a sense of difficulty" of shared global challenges. It's time, he says, "to roll up our sleeves."

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