Pharyngula

Uninvention

Our Seed Overlords have asked a question (our answering is entirely voluntary, if you were wondering, and we’re only answering because it is an interesting question): “if you could cause one invention from the last hundred years never to have been made at all, which would it be, and why?

Several of my colleagues here have coughed up answers—Adventures in Ethics and Science (with a particularly appropriate entry),

Afarensis,

Evolgen,

Living the Scientific Life, and

Stranger Fruit—but I’m going to be a little bit contrary and question the question.

My answer is “none.”

I don’t see most of the major inventions as avoidable; they’re consequences of advances in whole suites of technologies. You can’t get rid of television, for instance, without stymying a whole collection of communications technologies—it was a natural and nearly inevitable consequence of radio, and without it we would lack many tools we take for granted. If there’d been no TV, what would you be looking at right now as you read this?.

The question is a bit like pointing at a river and asking, “which small patch in the middle of that would you like to see high and dry, with the water flowing around it while leaving it untouched?” It’s not going to happen, and in most cases it’s going to be physically impossible.

Diverting the river altogether is another thing, though, although it’s not going to be something that can be accomplished in a century, or that won’t have unintended consequences. One of the best explorations of that idea that I’ve read is Keith Roberts’ gentle fantasy, Pavane(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s an alternate history novel that begins with the assassination of Elizabeth I, which leads to the conquest of England by Spain, and the wholesale slowing of technology with Catholic interference in the Industrial Revolution. The premise is that our history is being reshaped so that we’re all a little better prepared culturally and socially to cope with the potential of our machines. It’s an interesting idea, but not one with which I’m entirely agreeable—I’m too cynical to think that society will naturally mature without the threat of horrible consequences to compel them—but I do think there are many different paths we can take. I just don’t believe that the possibilities are fine-grained enough that we can pick and choose single innovations and even hypothetically extirpate them from our history.

Comments

  1. #1 Caledonian
    May 6, 2006

    You haven’t answered the question. You’ve responded by calling into question the premises of the inquiry. The analysis you’ve shared has some value, but it’s not what you’ve claimed you’re doing, which is simply annoying.

    If *I* could eliminate one invention, it would have to be antibiotics. (Vaccination occurred too early to qualify for this question.) If our technological development had otherwise continued unabated, but our population was constrained in its growth by the need to compensate for disease, we might have been able to develop sensible ways to be part of our environment. The simple truth is that even with our current knowledge, we could create a remarkable quality of life — IF there were far fewer humans.

  2. #3 Lixivium
    May 6, 2006

    “It’s an interesting idea, but not one with which I’m entirely agreeable–I’m too cynical to think that society will naturally mature without the threat of horrible consequences to compel them–but I do think there are many different paths we can take.”

    The sad thing is that society doesn’t always mature even with the threat of horrible consequences (global warming).

    I’d uninvent the SUV, 2nd choice being billboards.

  3. #4 Swintah
    May 6, 2006

    I say Scientology. It’s not a technology, but it is an invention. It has created a lot of trouble for a lot of people; and ruined Tom Cruise for me. Everytime I see him, the vitamins debacle goes off in my head. I’m hoping that MI:III will be so dazzling that it will clear out my synapses.

  4. #5 BigDumbChimp
    May 6, 2006

    The world can probably do without the Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force

    um, wow

  5. #6 Rob Knop
    May 6, 2006

    I agree with PZ. (See? I’m capable of saying that.)

    I wouldn’t uninvent any technology, partly for the reasons PZ says (everything is coupled to other things we want), and partly for reasons I posted over on Chad’s blog (Uncertain Prinicples) in my response about this.

    But the point about Scientology — I would uninvent some “social” inventions that we’ve had in the last 100 years. While scientific discoveries are inevitable– they’re out there, even if we undiscover them, somebody will find them again in the future– social inventions are conventions of society. And, yeah, they may come back, but there are things I wish we didn’t have right now. Software and business method patents are what I mentioned on Chad’s blog. Scientology is another good one. Hell, the modern form of fundamentalist Christianity was invented (I believe) in the last 100 years, and we could do without that.

    Direct marketing is something we could do without. No more telemarketing phone calls would be nice….

    -Rob

  6. #7 longstreet
    May 6, 2006

    Reading through some of these various answers to the Pandora’s-can-o-worms dilemma, I find a recurring thread: It’s not so much any of these inventions that are being wished away–it’s the later developments of these inventions. Each of them has been originally developed for specific and reasonable purposes, but eventually reached a point of sophistication where they become repugnant.
    Land mines, for instance, were created for very useful, efficient and specific purposes–mainly to keep the enemy from going somewhere–tactical area denial. This is very laudible if your enemy is mostly infantry and outnumbers you immensely. Only in the very early civil war command det types were they actually meant to kill soldiers rather than ensure they did not cross the mined territory. But because they were cheap and efficient, they were eventually taken up by the poorest, weakest combatants as a means of randomly killing people and the weapons were designed to be undetectable, thus eliminating their military purpose. And that development, evidence of the normal perversity of humans, is what is really objectional.
    Similarly, the A-bomb was terrible, so they invented the H-bomb which was so powerful as to be essentially useless militarily. Advertising is fine, but imbedded ads are invasive. Antibiotics? Hard to follow that one unless one owns stock in the funeral industry. Might as well uninvent sanitation.
    Steve “How about VX?” James

  7. #8 rrt
    May 6, 2006

    “You haven’t answered the question. You’ve responded by calling into question the premises of the inquiry. The analysis you’ve shared has some value, but it’s not what you’ve claimed you’re doing, which is simply annoying.”

    I’m not sure I understand. Could you elaborate? PZ’s response was my first response too, although in my case it’s partly that I have difficulty accepting that there are “Things Man Was Not Meant To Know.” Of course, I recognize that’s not necessarily what the question is saying.

    Antibiotics is interesting!

  8. #9 rrt
    May 6, 2006

    Okay, having read the other links, I have this to say:

    Oh good LORD, the TORNADO MUST DIE!!!

  9. #10 Molly Newman
    May 6, 2006

    I don’t know… I think the world might be a far better place without call waiting.

    And I’m a bit (well, more than a bit) freaked out by the notion of the disinvention of antibiotics. I understand the population control urge, but not at the expense of the lives of hundreds of millions of postpartum mothers and under-five children (whom, IIRC, were the primary victims of infection before penicillin came along…). Um, eww.

  10. #11 Caledonian
    May 6, 2006

    When asked, PZ said he wouldn’t choose anything. He then elaborated on that response by making a comparison with raising a small section of a river — just as that section would quickly be washed away again by the force of the water, he suggests that it isn’t really possible to cause something to be uninvented. It’s as though, when asked where in the galaxy you’d want to go if FTL were possible, you responded that FTL isn’t possible and so you’d choose to go nowhere. It’s a rejection of the premise, not an answer that accepts the premise.

    That doesn’t mean that the response isn’t interesting and valuable… but when PZ claims to be contrary by answering, and then doesn’t do so… one wonders if he’s trying to get more people to post by saying and doing silly things.

    For the record, I think he’s correct about minor technological innovations, but more fundamental ones (in addition to theoretical and sociocultural concepts) might be temporarily uninventible. It’s entirely possible that some other bright person would have come up with Relativity if Einstein had been hit by a bus, and even if no one figured it out then the accumulating data would have led physicists to it eventually through the sheer force of empirical modeling. However, it *could* have been discovered as soon as Maxwell’s equations were formulated. The fact that it wasn’t suggests that certain historical events were necessary to cause it to come into being when it did — and that implies that its creation could be accelerated or delayed to some degree.

  11. #12 Unstable Isotope
    May 6, 2006

    I would uninvent the idea of “journalistic balance” which is easily exploited by liars. Now facts are partisan and the media pretends it doesn’t know the difference.

  12. #13 rrt
    May 6, 2006

    “That doesn’t mean that the response isn’t interesting and valuable… but when PZ claims to be contrary by answering, and then doesn’t do so… one wonders if he’s trying to get more people to post by saying and doing silly things.”

    I see your point…but I don’t see THIS comment at all, just as I didn’t understand your original point. This seems a stretch to me, and a weird one.

    Anyway, regarding Molly’s comment about antibiotics, I understand your reaction…but I don’t think Caledonian doesn’t share the “eew” factor. I think he’s just focused on the question of population and quality of life, and is thinking (yes?) that the evils of a hundred years without antibiotics are outweighed by the benefits of an indefinite future with far better human quality of life, intelligent integration with/use of our environment, and (presumably) antibiotics now freshly discovered.

  13. #14 ocmpoma
    May 6, 2006

    “You haven’t answered the question.”

    Actually, PZ did answer. The question was, “If you could…” PZ’s response was, “If I could, I wouldn’t.”
    And I agree. Even with landmines, which are (in my opinion) more destructive then NBC weapons simply becaused they are actually used (and have a much wider range of potential injury because they can kill years after their deployment).

  14. #15 Jonathan Badger
    May 6, 2006

    It’s an alternate history novel that begins with the assassination of Elizabeth I, which leads to the conquest of England by Spain

    Sort of. That’s what it seems to be, anyway. The Coda seems to suggest another interpretation, though.

  15. #16 woofsterNY
    May 6, 2006

    The cigarette. Windows 95. The SUV. Joan Rivers. Botox. Fabricated boy bands. State lotteries. Jan Michael Vincent. Snowmobiles, ATVs and dirt bikes. Jerry Falwell. Fundamentalist Christianity. The Flying Nun and My Mother the Car. The court decision that made corporations legal “persons,” with equal human rights. Factory farming. George W. Bush. Boom boxes. E-mail spam. Jingoistic neo-conservativism. Rush Limbaugh. Stomach stapling. John Edwards. The meme of suicide bombing. Ronco. Andy Warhol. And yes, Scientology.

    If I had all of history to pick things I wish had never been invented, instead of just the past 100 years, I’d pick:

    Religion, especially the Catholic Church, and especially missionaries, and including the Bible and the Koran. The death penalty (and human sacrifice). Coffee and tobacco. Goats. Karl Marx. Circumcision. Smallpox infected blankets. Bull fighting. Slavery. The meme of breeding dogs down into cute toys. Commercial fishing with nets.

    On the other hand, things I wish had been invented 100 (or 1,000) years SOONER:

    Science. Public libraries (including the printing press, and books). Charles Darwin. The meme of equal rights (and democracy). Environmentalism. Ralph Nader. Trial by jury, and defense lawyers. Jane Goodall. Free public education. Contraceptives. The Freedom of Information Act. Photography.

  16. #17 darukaru
    May 6, 2006

    Antibiotics? Hard to follow that one unless one owns stock in the funeral industry.

    And this is why green fundamentalism scares me. It’s one thing to say that we should be better caretakers of the environment; it’s quite another to say that millions of people should die so that we don’t have a chance to shit it up.

  17. #18 JoeB
    May 6, 2006

    Caledonian:

    but when PZ claims to be contrary by answering, and then doesn’t do so… one wonders if he’s trying to get more people to post by saying and doing silly things.

    I don’t understand this … he said he was being contrary by questioning the question instead of answering it. If he were being contrary by answering, that would imply that others were avoiding answering, which is not true.

    As for limiting inventions — I don’t even think this is possible. It occurs to me that every technology that I dislike can also be applied in a very beneficial way. We just have evil people that like to apply technology in a way that is beneficial to some rather than most.

  18. #19 Ian H Spedding
    May 6, 2006

    Teenagers!

  19. #20 paul
    May 6, 2006

    JoeB: I agree that for every allegedly destructive idea, there are beneficial uses for it.

    I can’t think of something right now (1906 seems too recent to me).

    I would argue that embedded advertising is hardly the scourge of mankind (I’m grateful there’s a close box on the tornado here). And uninventing the SUV means uninventing heavy trucks, to my mind. I would uninvent gasoline as a fuel, if it weren’t outside the 100 year range: let steam, electricity, even diesel, remain and let the transportation industry evolve differently. I think that kills aviation, as a side-effect, though ;-)

    I think going to the root invention, rather than trying to kill a branch, is more interesting.

  20. #21 Troutnut
    May 6, 2006

    PZ makes a very good point.

    I was going to say propeller beanies, but then I realized that without them we would never have seen several pages of one of the Calvin & Hobbes books.

    Then I was going to say cigarrettes, would be a wonderful answer, but they weren’t invented in the last 100 years.

    So I’m going to have to go with the crossword puzzle, which was invented in 1913. I don’t see it as in any way inevitable, but it is used throughout elementary school as “busywork” which prevents students from actually learning.

  21. #22 NelC
    May 6, 2006

    Oh, I doubt it would kill aviation; there’d still be zeppelins. I’d guess a steam-turbine would propel a dirigible quite handily.

  22. #23 Jonathan Badger
    May 6, 2006

    So I’m going to have to go with the crossword puzzle, which was invented in 1913. I don’t see it as in any way inevitable, but it is used throughout elementary school as “busywork” which prevents students from actually learning.

    Crosswords are far more than busy work given to children, you know. And if anyone gave children a real crossword puzzle, like from the New York Times, they *would* learn something.

  23. #24 stoic
    May 6, 2006

    The presumption is that life would have been better if x hadn’t been invented. Some examples come to mind…

    1. crude oil=gasoline=internal compustion engines=suburban sprawl
    2. natural gas=nitrogin fertilizers=corporate/industrial agriculture
    3. radio=television=mass consumption society

    In each case, the initial invention led to an ugly result that degraded the human condition. But if you look at human society BEFORE these inventions it was ugly, grasping, mean and cruel. People are son’s-a-bitches. You don’t need to drive a Hummer to prove it.

    But it helps.

  24. #25 potentilla
    May 6, 2006

    You can’t dry off a little patch in the middle of a river, but maybe you could dam up a little side-stream in the delta and divert the flow back to the main channel. How about uninventing spam and (computer) viruses?

    Also, isn’t there a difference between “invention” and “discovery”? Do relativity and antobiotics really count as “inventions”? Perhaps it’s a continuum?

  25. #26 Scott Hatfield
    May 6, 2006

    Hatfield here. I agree with Professor Myers in a sense, which is that I don’t think you can easily uncouple the growth of scientific knowledge from technological applications of same, especially in a free society with open markets.

    I also think, however, that there is a subtext easily associated with the question which is not merely wrong, but terribly destructive, which is the way that so many people implicitly equate science with technology, and in so doing, pretend (incorrectly) that human problems can be solved with technology.

    If, as one of us has written, we identify ‘antibiotics’ as a technical breakthrough whose unintended consequences are now seen as disastrous, this is merely part of a greater trend in which people view scientists as purveyors of technical solutions. If we had held off on the invention of antibiotics, supposedly, then over time other means of developing a high-quality, sustainable lifestyle would have had time to develop.

    Perhaps, but then again perhaps not. My hunch is that this is not a technical problem at all, but an inevitable consequence of the way much of our populations grow. The same arguments made with respect to antibiotics could be made about pesticides, about the exploitation of fossil fuels, about the development of hybrid cereal grains with greater yields. All of them are technical responses to the needs of human populations, and all of them have had unforseen and negative consequences, but none have addressed the fundamental problem, which is essentially the one identified by Malthus.

    That problem is a human problem, not a scientific problem. It requires a sea change in values, not a technical breakthrough. The failure to make this distinction leads to an attitude that ‘science will solve all our problems’ , one held by so many members of the electorate. So, in a very real sense, I think the idea of an alternate history based upon the elimination of this or that technology feeds a viewpoint that not only distorts the nature of science, but makes desirable legal, political and social transformation more difficult.

    Scott Hatfield
    epigene13@hotmail.com

  26. #27 AJ Milne
    May 6, 2006

    I’ve always pretty much had that view of the whole Pandora’s Box picture of technology. Up to and including such nastily two-edged technologies as fission and fusion, wishing such things away is mere pissing in the wind; we can no more wish them away than wish away our species’ curiosity (and frankly, I’ve exactly no wish to wish that away) and the very structure of our universe that makes such manipulations of matter and energy possible. The attitude we need therefore to foster isn’t that we should try somehow not to learn what we don’t want to know; the attitude that suits the nature of knowledge itself is that we must learn to live as wisely as we can with what we must eventually discover.

    The minor caveat to that general position however, that may fit the question, is that certain mere gizmos touted as ‘inventions’ on late-night TV may, in fact, have been far from inevitable… and some of the garbage the feeble-minded buy from hucksters at two in the morning on $29.95/month installment plans might have been less inevitable, might have never seen the light of day without our world being much different… But this is cheating precisely because the general category of the con–the disposable and not particularly innovative consumer ‘innovation’ whose principle function is part said marks from their money–is itself an invention, and probably, yeah, entirely inevitable, too.

  27. #28 steve s
    May 6, 2006

    My answer is “none.”

    I don’t see most of the major inventions as avoidable; they’re consequences of advances in whole suites of technologies. You can’t get rid of television, for instance, without stymying a whole collection of communications technologies–it was a natural and nearly inevitable consequence of radio, and without it we would lack many tools we take for granted. If there’d been no TV, what would you be looking at right now as you read this?.

    The ‘none’ part is fine, that was my first instinct, but that next paragraph is eyerolling. Obviously it’s all interconnected blah blah blah the premise is there’s some kind of magic way you could remove a technology anyway. It’s just a mechanism to justify a thought experiment that, yes, we know, isn’t possible in reality.

    And the correct answer is DRM.

  28. #29 Dustin
    May 6, 2006

    DRM is in a perpetual state of uninvention — once it was even uninvented by a felt tip marker.

    If you can read it, you can rip it.

  29. #30 jeffperado
    May 6, 2006

    PZ,

    I’m kinda sorta with you on this. I agree that individual inventions cannot be “non-invented” without destroying the fabric of science-technology.

    But I do think the question should be reworded. Why limit to the last hundred years?

    With that in mind, and considering all the answers the other science bloggers gave — nuclear weapons, landmines, etc. — I would say that all those have their roots in one single invention, the one that has haunted and destroyed humanity ever since its inception.

    That invention is:

    Religion

    There I said it. If humanity had never invented religion, just think how many wars, acts of genocide, slavery, etc. would have never occurred. That is not to say that humanity would be war free, but things would certainly have gone along much smoother without wars over “My god is bigger than your god…”

  30. #31 Dustin
    May 6, 2006

    Or, we could take the broad array of modern psychiatric treatments, go back in time, and give them to Abraham.

    Then that loony wouldn’t have marched up a hill to make a burnt offering of his son to the voices in his head, and the three biggest problems in the world wouldn’t exist.

  31. #32 dorkafork
    May 6, 2006

    I think it helps to think small. I recently read this article about accidental discoveries, I wouldn’t say all of them were inevitable. Though I can’t think of any of them I’d wish weren’t invented. Here’s another list. Popsicles, silly putty, post-it notes, potato chips, microwave ovens… That’s essentially what patents are for, right? Scientists figure out the science, and engineers put that knowledge to creative use.

  32. #33 Jason Malloy
    May 6, 2006

    Remember when PZ gave his readers that 2 door hypothetical, and we largely didn’t play along for the same reason he isn’t playing along now?

    Lesson: Don’t give nerds hypotheticals that require any sort of relaxed suite of assumptions. They simply can’t and won’t think inside your box.

  33. #34 paul
    May 6, 2006

    I’m going to cast my vote for television.

    As stoic wrote:

    radio=television=mass consumption society

    I don’t think it follows that radio might have led to TV and I think TV, at least as we do it here — subsidized by commercials — hasn’t done us a lot of good.

    I would cite the crop harvested by television as worse than just a mass consumption society: it’s more like a society of uncritical consumers who are fed information (if you can call it that) at the level of the slowest among us. If there is a difference in depth or information density in the publicly available news source, I’ve not heard of it. Right now, what should be fact-filled national debates are simply opposing soundbites that can be fit in between the sponsorships.

    Think about the televangelists that make PZ despair: would they have as much reach or power if they were constrained to radio or printed material?

  34. #35 LMWanderer
    May 6, 2006

    The Terminator Gene from Monsanto
    http://www.geo-pie.cornell.edu/issues/terminator.html

  35. #36 natural cynic
    May 6, 2006

    Power steering for cars. This would limit the size of cars, thus eliminating SUV’s and other road hogs. If SUV’s were invented and people drove them while talking without power steering while talking on cell phones, it might make a dent in overpopulation.

  36. #37 Mouth
    May 6, 2006

    Ebonics.

  37. #38 Jenna
    May 6, 2006

    I understand PZ’s take on the uninvention question. Sometimes a previous invention is built upon.

    So I’ll answer this question based on current horrible effects from previous inventions: tied at #1 are: false dichotomies, totalitarianism, mind-your-business religions, and mosquitoes. :)

  38. #39 Ed Darrell
    May 6, 2006

    The interstate highway system. Without it, we’d have less sprawl, more intercity and intracity mass transit, we’d use less energy.

    A close second would be air conditioning. It was once pointed out to me that there was not a Republican vote cast in Arizona until 1948, when the postward spread of window air conditioners made it possible for the wussies to live in hotter climes. Republicanism in the Sun Belt can be blamed on air conditioning.

    Without the interstate freeways, though, they couldn’t even come visit . . .

  39. #40 Righteous Bubba
    May 6, 2006

    Then that loony wouldn’t have marched up a hill to make a burnt offering of his son to the voices in his head, and the three biggest problems in the world wouldn’t exist.

    If Judaism is one of the three, how do you justify it as one of the three biggest problems that exist?

  40. #41 Fangz
    May 6, 2006

    At risk of invoking Godwin’s law, I think a pretty good case can be made that the world would be a better place if Xyklon B was never invented.

    Certainly, the Nazis may have found another method, but surely the final solution would have lacked some of its ruthless efficiency? We can rightly reject, as PZ does, the sort of broad reshaping of the world that we are tempted into doing, but I don’t buy the ‘best of all possible worlds logic’ that stops us from making small changes that have reasonably direct benefits.

  41. #42 CaseyL
    May 6, 2006

    Trawlnets, which enabled massive overfishing, and thus the extinction or near-extinction of entire species of food-fish, with all the consequences thereof.

    Cellphones. God, I hate cellphones. Not only have they introduced whole new genres of rudeness into daily life, they condition people to accept whole new levels of intrusiveness in the name of “safety” and “work efficiency.”

  42. #43 kaleberg
    May 6, 2006

    I’m with PZ. I wouldn’t uninvent a thing.

    A feminist friend of mine always wonders why women aren’t all technology freaks since it has been technology that has freed women from so many of the horrors of traditional, pre-technological life. Consider the birth control pill, the automatic rifle, the power winch, the car starter motor, antifungal agents, epidurals, nail guns, chain saws, baby monitors, spandex and microfiber fabrics, the power loom and the like. Sure, men get some benefits from chain saws, but a 100 pound woman gets much more benefit from a chain saw than a 200 pound man. Think about Google from a feminist perspective, and you’ll see that it has freed countless women from the drudge work of research, usually being performed at the behest of their male bosses.

    Sure, some inventions have their downsides. The atomic bomb was pretty nasty, but as Brad DeLong recently noted, we just broke the old Pax Romana record for no armies swarming across the Rhine. Sure, modern sanitation has led to a soaring population, but that means we don’t spend as much time at kiddy funerals.

    As for Xyklon B, it was slightly more efficient than diesel exhaust fumes, especially later in the war when diesel fuel was getting scarce, but I suggest you read Jared Diamonds comparison of the killing technologies and their effectiveness at the Normandy Invasion and in Rwanda.

  43. #44 NelC
    May 6, 2006

    As the son of a trawlerman, I think I should say that it wasn’t just the trawls that have caused over-fishing (even if you’re making the common layman’s mistake of calling all nets trawls). It was sonar. Without sonar, fisherman would be casting their nets blind, just dropping them roundabout where the fish should be, based on previous experience, as uncertain as that is sure to be.

    With sonar imaging the shoals — first as peaks on sonographs, then as fuzzy blobs on CRTs, and finally in glorious false-colour — allowing fishing boats to cast their nets precisely where the shoals lay, fishing became so successful that the industry rapidly outgrew the replacement rate of the oceans’ species, and so brought about the crisis that the industry — and the sea — is suffering today.

    On the other hand, drift nets and long-lines don’t tear up the ocean floor the way trawls can, laying waste to acres of habitat with each haul. But trawls are ancient, and sonar lies firmly in the 100-year span of the game, so my vote goes for the latter.

    No, I didn’t stay in my Dad’s business; why do you ask?

  44. I think I’ll go with billboards.

    Anything major was pretty certain to be invented anyway, at least in broad strokes… but billboards? They’re a very specific concept, not a whole lot is connected to them, and they require a very specific aspect of property rights (and other things).

    I could actually see them as being ‘uninventable’.

  45. #46 rrp
    May 6, 2006

    There are a ton of things I hate about life in the 21st, but I have to go with Dr. Myers and take none of the above. There are too many chances for unintended (really bad) consequences.

    My first urge was the uninvention of the process for making nitrogenous fertilizers. These things have been a disaster economically (making mega farms profitable and family farms unprofitable, unless they followed the lead of the corporate behemoths), socially (loss of family farms has wrecked familial and social networks in rural areas, not to mention removing jobs), ecologically (it makes it possible to farm where farming is just not a good idea and the runoff makes temporary, intense nutrient blooms that trash aquatic communities), and nutritionally (the megafarms have institutionalized monocultures, made poor quality food cheap, and pretty much determined what’s for dinner for most of us).

    But there is an upside.

    Food is cheaper for many people (at least in the USA) as a result. People are fed and I can’t see that as a completely bad thing.

  46. #47 The Amazing Kim
    May 6, 2006

    Perhaps it is not the technology imposed on society that makes it change, but changes in society that produce the technology.
    Nothing’s created in a vacuum, after all. There has to be some imperitave to make and develop the thing, and these factors are inextricably connected to the social context.

    FWIW, I’m with Mr Spedding. Teenagers. Followed closely by hydrogenated vegetable oil and the current Australian gov’t.

  47. #48 Stanton
    May 6, 2006

    For now, I’d say that the one invention that we could have done without is the popup ad.
    Especially that tornado.

  48. #49 Molly, NYC
    May 7, 2006

    CaseyL beat me to it: Cellphones. No contest.

    I remember when you could reliably assume that someone walking down the street, lost in their own little world, screaming and swearing at someone who wasn’t there, was a schizophrenic.

  49. #50 tihson
    May 7, 2006

    I see someone mentioned religion. As much as I find religion vulgar and unnecessary, it seems most folks need it. Besides, humans would find other motivation besides religion to screw one another over. Maybe this planet would have a chance if humanity itself hadn’t evolved. I recently read an article about why we haven’t met space aliens yet, and one speculation was that any civilization that had reached the technological level necessary for interstellar travel would have self destructed. Let’s just uninvent evolution.

  50. #51 Keith Douglas
    May 7, 2006

    I’d have to say spam (as in unsolicited commercial bulk email), but only if “none” is not allowed. Speaking of which, there’s a great book on techniques of spamming I just read called Inside the Spam Cartel. I had no idea many CGIs were vulnerable …

  51. #52 Kevin
    May 7, 2006

    PZ Myers is right, but I think the question could be answered and avoid all his caveats by thinking of what concepts one could do without, and my answer would be neoliberal economics (a.k.a. the Chicago School of Economics). With this pseudoscientific backing, organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have imposed privatization programs which have led to human misery on a massive scale over the globe, riots and deaths, for example in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and even the installation of friendly dictators like General Suharto. A mere two years after his ascension, a meeting was held among major Western multinationals which carved up Indonesia in rather the same way that the Sykes-Picot agreement carved up the Middle East without the assent of the affected people. Then an estimated one million Indonesians lost their lives, especially in the oil-rich East Timor region, as the price for being the World Bank’s model pupil. And it was based on nothing; sheer fantasies cooked up in the brains of graduates of U of Chicago, which caused the economy to ultimately collapse in the SE Asian crash of the mid-nineties.

    If one wanted to prevent a large swath of human misery in the latter half of the 20th century, I think this is a top candidate for best to have never been invented.

  52. #53 SparrowFalls
    May 7, 2006

    I’ll go with cell phones (and wireless email devices). Not because I believe they are intrinsically evil, but because they are an accelerator for the instant gratification mindset.

    If we could all start getting used to a slower pace of life, then we might begin to work towards a ‘soft’ population reduction – reducing the risk of our species consuming itself (and other species) out of existence.

    More a case of ‘uninventing’ I guess.

  53. #54 Kristjan Wager
    May 7, 2006

    I’ll go with cell phones (and wireless email devices). Not because I believe they are intrinsically evil, but because they are an accelerator for the instant gratification mindset.

    See this kind of statement bugs me. Cell phones makes it possible to save many people who couldn’t be saved before instant communication became available (car-accidents in far-off places could be one example).

    Also, they (and wireless emails, and even pagers) are necessary for certain types of jobs. Pagers are often used by hospitals to enable them to get in touch with doctors if they are suddently required. Wireless emails (and connections in general) makes it possible for people to do reasearch even in places where the infrastructure is not up to handling cabling.

    I used a cell phone at my job, because I have to be available at all times within certain hours. Some times I am away from the office, and then a cell phone is necessary. When a client calls me, it’s not just because they want instant gratification (emails are used for that purpose), it’s because they have a serious issue with one of their computer systems, which needs to be fixed now, because the issue have real time effects.

    Just because some technology is generally used for less important purposes than the optimal use, it doesn’t mean that we should ignore the optimal use.

  54. #55 longstreet
    May 7, 2006

    Has anyone mentioned breast implants?

    Me neither.

    Steve “I know its irrational” James

  55. #56 MYOB
    May 7, 2006

    What are the bounds of the question?
    Is it mere invention, such as something that was subsequently patented? Does it have to be an item or a process?
    What is the intent being of the question?
    Is it to see just how badly someone can f*ck up the past, and consequently our present and future, by removing something of importance to the passage of time?
    If we’re looking for the most important contributions then I would say the printing press. Without it control over access to the bible would have been limited and people would not have been able to read their own copies and thus develope thier own interpretations. We’d still be living under the control of the catholic church if this were so. Chances are that the middle east would have been either conquered by now or risen to equal status alongside the west absent the renaissance period which gave us a major boost into the lead. We’d probably not discovered the american continent until perhaps recent times. Technology would be much less, probably along the lines of what we had 50-100 years ago.

    Of course it’s all speculation because random catalysts that provoke change in thinking and thus change in direction are what spawns improvement.

    But if we were going to do speculate on a question like this then I think we should all watch the complete run of the James Burke BBC television series ‘Connections’ 1,2, & 3 series.

    MYOB’
    .

  56. #57 Matt McIrvin
    May 7, 2006

    I’ll go with cell phones (and wireless email devices). Not because I believe they are intrinsically evil, but because they are an accelerator for the instant gratification mindset.

    If we could all start getting used to a slower pace of life, then we might begin to work towards a ‘soft’ population reduction – reducing the risk of our species consuming itself (and other species) out of existence.

    Is there any evidence that people who belong to the “instant gratification society” reproduce more? To me it seems more the opposite: people in lower-tech, slower-paced, lower-gratification societies tend to have lots of babies because survival in these cultures is very labor-intensive.

    Now living in a modern consumer culture increases the cost in resources and environmental footprint per baby, and it’s possible that that increases the chance of a catastrophic crash. But I’m not convinced that going backward with the current population would help matters, or, for that matter, that dialing back things like communication technology is the way to start. If anything, information tech increases economic productivity relative to resources consumed; just making gasoline more expensive would probably be more beneficial (though it’ll have its own short- and medium-term problems).

  57. #58 Matt McIrvin
    May 7, 2006

    The first two paragraphs of the above were quotes–should have been italicized… I guess I ran afoul of the tag munger. Another thing to uninvent…

  58. #59 Chris Clarke
    May 7, 2006

    And this is why green fundamentalism scares me

    Caledonian a green fundamentalist? Good one. He’s a capital-L Propertarian who never outgrew the usual adolescent Rand fixation.

    He also seems really unhapppy with everyone and everything here.

  59. #60 PZ Myers
    May 7, 2006

    One reason he’s welcome to hang around is that I’m enjoying how miserable it makes him.

  60. #61 Caledonian
    May 7, 2006

    And this is why green fundamentalism scares me. It’s one thing to say that we should be better caretakers of the environment; it’s quite another to say that millions of people should die so that we don’t have a chance to shit it up.

    “Should” is a dangerously imprecise word. Its usage permits it to refer to inevitabilities, necessities, societal precepts, and expectations.

    One of the joys of interacting with science fiction fans is that a few of them are familiar with “The Cold Equations”.

  61. #62 ktesibios
    May 7, 2006

    Uninvent the Haber-Bosch process? Let’s think about that one for a minute.

    It did end the world’s dependence on finite sources of natural nitrates for fertilizer and opened the prospect of genuine security of food supply. That was considered a Nobel-quality achievement at the time. Lassie-tinged nostalgia for the family farm isn’t much of a consideration to balance against that and the shift in emphasis from quality (and idiosyncracy) to quantity in food production goes back at least to Jethro Tull’s time, so I’m not much inclined to blame Haber and Bosch for that.

    On the other hand, it prolonged the First World War for at least two years. Cut off from Chilean nitrates by naval blockade, by 1915 Germany was literally running out of propellants and explosives. Their situation was bad enough that they were confiscating small quantities of nitrate fertilizers from peasants to feed the arms industry, and their military planners anticipated having to sue for peace by early 1916, Their desperation to break the stalemate of the Western front before they ran out of powder and shell led directly to the decision to use poison gas on the battlefield.

    In theory, they had an unlimited supply of fixed nitrogen in the Haber-Bosch plant operating at Leuna, but that process produced ammonia, which is fine for making fertilizer, but making explosives demanded nitric acid.

    Bosch, the patriotic engineer, came through with an industrial-scale process for producing nitric acid from ammonia. Now the mass slaughter could go on until 1918.

    So on the one hand this invention preserved many lives; on the other hand it destroyed them en masse. Neither result is more inherent in the invention than the other.

    We could have the same good/bad point/counterpoint about any invention from the cell phone all the way back to the wheel and axle. Or we could read Mark Twain’s The Dervish and the Offensive Stranger and consider how this duality was observed a hundred and four years ago.

  62. #63 PZ Myers
    May 8, 2006

    A good Cold Equations review: “In many ways it would seem that, for enthusiasts and defenders, the story is a palimpest, a canvas on which they project agendas that do not necessarily have much to do with the story.”

    The conclusion won’t make a Randian happy. The problem is not with an uncaring universe in that story, but with a preventable lack of social concern.

  63. #64 Caledonian
    May 8, 2006

    The ‘problem’ is that there is no problem. Given the conditions, that was the best outcome possible.

    There isn’t enough information about the society in question to evaluate the conditions themselves… although given that one of the themes of the story is finding best-sit solutions with limited resources, reaching a conclusion about societal concern is venturing onto a very thin branch in search of snipe nests.

  64. #65 Judy L., Toronto
    May 8, 2006

    We would definitely be better off without the social invention of Evangelical Christianity in the United States and of a variety of other cults worldwide.

    If any of you are interested in literature that plays with “what-if” scenarios in our recent history, check out Stephen Fry’s “Making History”, a delightful bit of speculative fiction in which Hitler is prevented from rising to power, with the untintentional result of allowing a much smarter, more effective dictator to achieve the aims of the Third Reich — the resulting effects on the course of American history and social development are satisfyingly alarming. It’s a fun read.

  65. The single most damaging invention of the last century or so, IMHO, is the notion of corporate personhood. It was “invented” by a transcription error in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, and has since become enshrined in law, doing incalculable damage to the political process in the US, to democracy, to the environment, and to world stability.

  66. #67 eyelessgame
    May 8, 2006

    You sort of danced around it (making a good point in the meanwhile), but I think the real problem here is that any given invention, if “uninvented”, would have a huge number of unintentional secondary effects, about which people would argue endlessly and fruitlessly.

    My knee-jerk reaction to the question was “the atomic bomb”. And then I thought — why? Hiroshima and Nagasaki would likely have been firebombed to much the same effect. It would have eliminated the arms race; would it have caused a war in Western Europe? I am dubious, but some people have firm ideas on the subject and I really don’t know. The bomb certainly caused (and still causes) a terrifying world situation, but would it be better, or worse, without it? Has it contributed to our stability, or made the world less stable? It’s all second-order effects, where the predictive power is virtually nil.

    The same applies to landmines. Yes, a lot of people are killed by them. But how else does one prosecute the sorts of ground wars for which land mines were so tactically useful? Surely the same wars would have been fought with the same ruthlessness. Might people otherwise have returned to the use of poison gas? Invented some other even more horrific method of killing people?

    No embedded advertising -> no broadcast TV -> what does that eventually do to the internet boom? No frigging clue. Would we even have an internet?

    How about this one. If we hadn’t “overreached” to land on the moon way back in 1969, might we have done it later, but with more sustainable technology, and might we have a thriving moonbase (or other significant off-earth presence) today? And would that be good or bad?

    Eliminate modern conservatism — what does that do to liberalism, without the Southern Strategy to move racists out of the Democratic Party? If you eliminate Fascism, does communism rule the planet? Same question regarding fascism if you eliminate communism?

    The discussion seems to retreat into wankery rather quickly; people argue in ways that reinforce their core assumptions about secondary effects, and don’t examine those assumptions.

    I’m with PZ; this is a superficially interesting thought experiment but it’s not really that fruitful.

  67. #68 Kajiki
    May 8, 2006

    VX gas. It’s one of those things we wish we could disinvent. Really, how could nerve agents possibly serve a purpose to anyone other than a deranged, homicidal mind?

    I see nothing that makes Zyklon B in particular deserve its bad rep, any insecticide can be used in large amounts and closed spaces to kill people. Heck, the Nazis even used exhaust fumes in a lot of camps. But if you’re going to uninvent all the quick and controlled ways to kill lots of people, mass murder will still occur, only less efficiently and to the effect of slow, agonizing deaths for the victims.

    What’s so scary isn’t science, it’s the fact that people in leading positions so much rather throw money at new terrible ways to kill civillians than into researching cures for, say, pandemics that spread thanks to overpopulation. Yeah, I’m with PZ too. I think it would take uninventing humanity itself – which means all life ever, so it never evolves sentience – in order to avoid all this abuse of science.