In Pursuit of the Next Stupid Idea
In the Beginning
In the beginning there was nothing. And it was pretty cool because no one had to worry about cleaning up.
“First the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil. And then the Arabs came and they bought Mercedes Benzes. And Prince Charles started wearing all of Lady Di’s clothes. I couldn’t believe it.”
– Jacobs from Airplane 2,
Once we humans came along cleaning up would be the least of our worries. With all of the various technologies we came up with, rocks being in plentiful supply, we made what had to be the first really far-reaching invention: fire. Now we could cook meat, build fireplaces and burn things down; this led to the invention of fire marshalls.
After that came the next most incredible invention of all time: the wheel. Now we could build cars, burn fossil fuels (using fire. Refer to previous paragraph), and run people over. This led to the rise of GEICO.
It has been downhill ever since. Between the never ending arms race (it started with stone arrow heads all the way up to the Jericho missile) and the need to get the latest electronic doo-dad the human race feels the need to invent more and more things to either make it easier to kill large numbers of people or large numbers of brain cells.
Billions of Brain Cells Cried Out in Terror and Were Suddenly Silenced
Speaking of brain cells, you can’t have a conversation about inventions without talking about one of the the coolest invention in the world that has been subverted into the biggest time waster of all: the television (unless you happen to be watching Battlestar Galactica).
Philo Farnsworth, while he wasn’t busy working at his parent’s farm, invented what became television. While RCA was busy stealing his ideas, he managed to file quite a few patents including one for the Image dissector camera tube. In what was to become a staple of the medium, one of the first pictures was of his wife; Pamela Sue Anderson was not far behind. In addition, the first images were 3.5 inches tall thereby proving that Farnsworth also foresaw the coming of the iPod bikini.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
In subverting television from the sublime to the ridiculous we have a great example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Edison, probably the most famous inventor of all, but not above taking credit for the work of others including Nikola Tesla, had other ideas for his phonograph. Edison expected his invention to be used for dictation and other business tasks while the washed masses wanted to listen to Weird Al (BTW, I am a big fan). Where did this leave Edison? In the same spot as Farnsworth: watching his invention make lots of money for other people because he had the failure of imagination to see the coming of such hallmarks of our culture as Iron Chef America and Howard Stern. Don’t cry for Edison, he died quite wealthy; Tesla was not so lucky.
Rise of the Machines
Of course, no discussion of inventions and their insanity would be complete without that other hallmark of the 21st century: the computer. Talk about unintended consequences. While we can look at future fantasies like the Terminator as unlikely, the uses of technology to send us into a tailspin will be worse, but much more mundane. The loss of privacy is well underway in countries like China and the United States and there are no signs of its abatement. Makes you long for the days when an abacus was the leading edge and the concept of zero was thought to be a pretty cool thing.
With all that I can’t wait to discover my own patentable idea so that I can sell it to some heartless multi-national corporation, or Bill Gates, for a gazillion dollars. Just the thought of playing golf with Warren Buffett some day makes me wish I had learned golf. I will have my own entry in Wikipedia and historians will curse my name for creating a solution to poverty that caused the utter destruction of the world as we know it.
I can’t wait.