No More Inventions

Speed provides the one genuinely modern pleasure.
- Aldous Huxley

Although we live in an era of rapid technological advancement, there have been few basic inventions in the last five decades. By 'basic' I do not mean involving basic science but an invention that affects our lives in a basic way.

This article is about the inventions that have changed our lives in a basic way since 1800. My contention is that singularly little has happened since 1950. This is paradoxical in view of the apparently rapid and accelerating advance of science and technology (eg 90% of all scientists are now living).

Why? Is it because human needs are limited, or that our imagination is hamstrung? Note that I am talking about inventions, not discoveries. By "basic inventions" I mean those that have changed our lives in basic ways, whether for better or worse.

Modern inventions such as lasers, space craft, washing machines, facsimile, VCRs, refrigerators, microwave ovens, optical fibres, photocopiers, x-ray machines, radar, and compact discs, have not changed our lives in any basic way.

There have been many refinements of the inventions in the list below, but nothing truly revolutionary in terms of its impact on our lives, either for good or bad. Note, however, that a difference of degree can become a difference of kind eg the increase in speed that plane travel allows.

My criterion is the first working version. Many of the dates are open to dispute, as is authorship, but not the overall time-table.

1800 to 1950
(1) train 1804 Trevithick
(2) photography 1835 daguerreotype
(3) synthetic fertilizers 1842 superphosphate (Lawes)
(4) anaesthetics 1846 ether (Morton)
(5) plastic 1868 celluloid
(6) telephone 1876 Bell
(7) phonograph 1877 Edison
(8) electric power generation 1882 Edison
(9) motor car 1886 Daimler
(10) electric motor 1888 Tesla
(11) motion pictures 1895 Lumiere brothers
(12) radio 1896 Marconi
(13) airplane 1903 Wright
(14) the assembly line 1908 Ford
(15) antibiotics 1928 penicillin
(16) TV 1936 introduction by BBC (1926 Baird)
(17) insecticides 1939 DDT
(18) atomic power 1945 the bomb
(19) computers 1945 ENIAC

after 1950
(1) contraceptive pill 1952
(2) personal computers 1980 IBM
(3) the Internet 1986

Rather than explicitly defining what it means for an invention to affect our lives in a basic way, it is easier to give an implicit definition. An invention is basic if its effect is comparable to that of the 22 listed above.

One could argue that 50 years is too short a time to determine whether a new invention is basic, but I think not. Lead time is constantly shrinking. There were sixteen basic inventions in the century between 1846 and 1945, that is more than one every seven years. On that reckoning we would have had seven basic inventions since 1950, but there have been only three. This calculation ignores the fact that vastly more money, time and manpower are devoted to research and development than during the earlier period.

In case it might be thought that no more basic inventions are conceivable, here is a list of possible future basic inventions:

(1) An unlimited and ecologically safe power source.
(2) Genetic engineering to eliminate hereditary disease.
(3) A completely effective pain killer with no side-effects.
(4) Practical interstellar travel.
(5) Clothes that never get dirty.
(6) A device that allows us to re-experience (not just recall) our past, or that of another person. This would allow us to enjoy again all our best experiences, retrieve lost objects, work through childhood trauma etc. It would also provide a vastly more potent experience than the cinema or TV, since it would involve all the senses and hence be indistinguishable from reality.
(7) Instantaneous matter transfer, which would make all other forms of transport obsolete.
(8) A device to show what people are thinking. This would allow perfect communication, force people to tell the truth, and could be used as a design tool. It would make all other forms of communication obsolete.
(9) A plug-on pleasure pack, which would be the ultimate high, superseding all narcotic drugs.
(10) A device to control people's brains. This would have enormous consequences in politics, marketing, criminology, education, bringing up children.
(11) Development of a machine that can think and feel, just as a person can.

Clearly, the majority of these belong to the realm of science fiction. Within our current framework most of them appear impossible.

It seems we are faced with the law of diminishing returns in that despite the great efforts being made, we mainly produce refinements. Two examples that illustrate how difficult progress has become, are the so far unsuccessful research efforts into curing cancer and creating a fusion energy source. Although vast amounts of money and effort have been poured into these two projects, the results are scanty.

There are real human needs that have not been met by existing inventions, such as longevity, freedom from sickness, pleasure at will, the capability to remember everything one wants to. Human life in the affluent West is still blighted by pain, sickness, alienation, boredom, repetitive labour, wasted time, communication problems between people, crime, and natural disasters. So the presumed finiteness of human needs can at most be only a part of the answer.

Perhaps a clue is given by the fact that it is exceedingly difficult to imagine heaven (though decidedly easy to imagine hell!). Even the above inventions, radical though they may be, are all merely extensions or extrapolations of existing ones. While it is difficult to conceive the possibility of something that is not an extrapolation but is entirely new, it is incomparably harder to actually create it.

I see three possible explanations for the dearth of basic inventions: (a) the contemporary period represents a hiccup and more basic inventions will soon come into being. (b) No more (or very few) basic inventions are possible. (c) They will only be invented when our thinking takes a leap forward comparable to the scientific leap that made the twenty-two historical inventions possible.

Possibilities (a) and (b) are inherently undecidable except by the passage of time.

Possibility (c) envisages a revolution on the same scale as that initiated by (among others) Kepler, Galileo and Newton. In other words, a jump analogous to that from scholasticism to enlightenment. It is worth noting that from our current perspective, the outcome of such a revolution might not appear to be science at all. According to this hypothesis, we have more or less exhausted the possibilities of our theoretical framework. Some support for this idea may be inferred from the history of physics, where radical advances have been followed by periods of consolidation. It has been said, only half in jest, that the eminence of a scientist is measured by the length of time that he holds up progress in his field.

I am on shakier ground here, but it seems as though science too has slowed down its rate of discovery. In theoretical physics, nothing comparable to quantum mechanics or relativity has been created since about 1930. That's an even longer hiatus than the dearth of basic inventions. I have heard it said that theoretical physics is a dead science, although either chaos theory or superstrings may change this assessment. Admittedly biology can boast the breaking of the genetic code. The other sciences have not yet bottomed-out the way physics seems to have done.

Another explanation is suggested by the observation that the aftermath of the scientific revolution has been a process of institutionalisation. Experience shows that to institutionalise a revolution is to kill it. The history of Christianity and Maoism illustrate this well. Creativity, spontaneity and idiosyncrasy cannot be embodied in an organisation, nor in rules, techniques or procedures. The inventors of the 19th century were maverick individuals largely working on their own. The present situation in research and development is radically different. Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why basic inventions no longer arise. It may be seen that this explanation is similar to reason (c) above.

Institutionalisation leads to a process of atrophy, so that creative and genuinely new ideas are shunned, while there is a rush ahead at maximum speed within a pre-established, narrow channel. This is epitomised in the recent debacle of IBM. For internal political reasons IBM ignored its state-of-the-art research achievements in order to pursue the diminishing mainframe market, with disastrous results.

A contrasting view is provided by Sufism, whose practitioners hold that what was Sufism in the past is no longer Sufism.

Modern medicine provides another example of inflexibility. Physicians in general practice have largely assumed the role of dispensers of antibiotics, analgesics and other chemicals. It has largely fallen to so-called alternative medicine to explore non-pharmacological approaches, such as lifestyle modification, diet, exercise, relaxation, acupuncture, visualisation and psychotherapy.

In case an example of the tunnel vision of modern medicine is needed, there is the case of a friend of mine, who for the first time in her life, found she had high blood pressure at age 62. Her doctor prescribed pills to bring down her pressure, without enquiring why it had risen in the first place. (She had just doubled her work-load.) It is as though a mechanic would place an ice-pack on top of an overheating engine, rather than eliminating the cause of the problem.

This narrowness of approach is mirrored in consumer goods. Rapid change is readily apparent - things get smaller, faster, quieter, fancier and so on. But do they become more useful, as opposed to merely more convenient? I acquired a new car after driving the previous one for eighteen years. The new one is better and has various refinements, but there is no appreciable change in functionality.

Even in the field of computers, where rapid advances are seen as being the norm, it seems that most new personal computers are based on single chip produced by Intel: the Pentium. As for idiosyncrasy, the main requirement these days is that both software and hardware be "IBM compatible" and that it run on Windows.

Apart from this, there is a dreadful sameness about modern appliances. Alvin Toffler argues that modern technology is geared to the personal demands of diverse individuals. I think the exact opposite is true. Just look at the cars in the street: their sameness of shape is striking. Compare it to the variety we had just twenty years ago. Ours is an age of mass production and increasing standardisation. Certainly, there are many new gadgets in the shops, but look how convergent are their designs. How many times are we told by a shop-keeper or tradesman: "They don't make those any more"? If you want something of metal rather than plastic, something that is built to last rather than bristling with gimmicks, then you are better off buying it second-hand.

The dearth of basic inventions since 1950, compared with the output during the preceding 150 years is a clear anomaly. Though we live in a period of rapid technological advancement, it is a time of consolidation rather than basic innovation. The reason may be that we have exhausted the possibilities of our theoretical framework. To overthrow that framework requires drastic change.

The slogan "Revolution forever!" may be a noble one, but it goes counter to the nature of most of us, who prefer security to unpredictable change. Perhaps here lies the answer to our question.

Tad Boniecki

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