The Powers That Be at Seed/ ScienceBlogs are initiating a new feature, cleverly called “Ask a ScienceBlogger,” in which they will pose one question a week to the group of us, and we’ll answer (or not) as we choose. The inaugural question was posted last night:
If you could cause one invention from the last hundred years never to have been made at all, which would it be, and why?
(Why they’ve chosen to roll this out on a Friday, when nobody reads blogs over the weekend, I have no idea… I just work here.)
Some thoughts on the question below the fold:
This is the part where I reveal the reason why I’m an academic scientist, and not a billionaire entrepreneur: I’m constitutionally incapable of giving a clear and unqualified answer to even a simple question.
Most of the easy answers– things like cell phones– are not a matter of inherent problems with the technology (instantaneous communication with anyone on the planet is a Good Thing), but rather a problem with the uses the street finds for things (calling people from inside the airplane to say “We’ve landed, I’ll meet you at baggage claim” is Stupid). Even apparently good answers like RPM and Razib jumping on “atomic weapons” are problematic. It’s not that I’m a big fan of nuclear explosions, mind, but I don’t think you can have nuclear power without some bright boy inventing nuclear weapons, and nuclear power is and will be important to have. John Lynch’s answer is probably as close as you can come to an invention with no upside, but as noted in comments, even landmines sometimes serve a useful purpose.
I have a hard time coming up with an actual technological answer, but I’ll take my cue from Dr. Free-Ride (“embedded advertising”), and recognize that we live in a world where ideas and “business models” are patentable as inventions. The idea from the last hundred years (or so) that I’d most like to get rid of is the idea that absolutely everything in the world ought to be organized along the lines of short-term market capitalism.
Don’t get me wrong– capitalism itself is the best system we’ve found for large-scale economic organization. What I object to is the idea that since it works well for corporations manufacturing concrete products, it must be the One True System to organize things that are fundamentally different than corporate industry, most notably scientific research, education, and the provision of health care. I think the idea that hospitals, schools, and research institutions ought to be run like businesses, focussed on short-term profits and losses, is one of the most pernicious and corrosive ideas to hit our society in the last century. If we could get rid of that notion, and accept that there are areas of human enterprise that need to be run on a long-term, non-economic basis, I think we’d be a better, healthier culture as a result.
Also, I’d like a pony.
What idea or invention would you get rid of?