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),
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.