Rethinking Invention

April 13, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“The difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.” - T. S. Eliot

I used to work for a professor who would say: “Without the toaster, we’d have no computers!” Each invention brings about a whole new world of possibilities. The toaster may not resemble the computer, but they are stages on a continuum once seen at a distance. Of course, that is not apparent in the beginning of any invention, only hindsight provides that kind of perspective.

The first toaster came about in the early 1900s and even it did not resemble the toasters of today. The first toaster browned one side of bread at a time, requiring the user to flip the toast halfway through. And wouldn’t you know the invention that immediately followed the toaster? Presliced bread. In other words, the new product created space for another new product. This is not surprising, and in fact, seems to be an unwritten rule of invention. It is anyone’s guess which products will survive (like presliced bread) and which will fade.

Listening to Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony got me thinking about invention in general. Zuckerberg has repeated that he did not know exactly what he was creating Facebook. I think that can be said of all invention. And if the inventor does not fully understand the capabilities and repercussions of their creation, imagine the public. We are left wandering behind in a variety of states of interest, desire, greed, paranoia and ignorance. Listening to the questions I had two thoughts. First: clearly there is a difficulty in framing the right questions, particularly about something so foreign to our own experience and training. And two: humans really do not understand these new technologies.

It is likely that all teenagers function on nothing less than three social media platforms a day. Maybe more. They may not be able to imagine a day when these platforms did not exist. But I think it is worth our time to offer some perspective on technology. For this, I thought it best to offer a very visual demonstration of invention, namely, the airplane. In 1903, the Wright brothers successfully flew the Flyer. It was not their first attempt at a plane, but it finally proved that humans could fly. Furthermore, they “discovered the first principles of human flight”. And of course, flight experimentation did not stop there. Nineteen years after the Flyer, Italian designer Caproni built the Ca 60, a prototype of a flying boat, intended for transatlantic travel. To look at it now, in retrospect, it looks like a science project (because, of course, it was). On its second flight, the Ca 60 crashed into the water and broke apart. Airplanes nowadays are sleeker, constructed from entirely different materials and a whole lot more sophisticated, but the builders learned a lot from these early experiments.

 Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

That there were nineteen years between the first flight and the first pursuit of transatlantic flight is important, however, because it is also roughly equivalent to the length of time in which we have had social media. (The first blogs were generated in 1999, and took off by 2004. The intent of my blog today, however, is not to define social media, which will have to wait for another day). Blogs arrived in early 2000 and became heavy traffickers by 2010. Other sites naturally filtered in to fill niche markets. Sites like Photobucket and Flickr, Tumblr and Youtube generated a new way to use, share and create our own content. (During this time, Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004.) As social media sites visibly changed and grew with their markets, they also changed on the back end. Data-mining and information-gathering changed too. I think it is important to remember how revolutionary the internet was (and is!). Whereas with the Flyer and Ca 60 one could see the differences and reasons for construction, social media markets are much more subtle.

It seems to me that social media is less social and more media than we originally imagined. What is hidden may be more important than what is received. The way that we code documents, tag them, like them, share them, all create invisible data which now hangs onto the content in question, but also hangs onto the users. Ironically, this data is parsed and stored in a variety of middleman’s hands, on sites like Facebook and Twitter. In complete contrast to the airplane, the internet has masked invention in such a subtle way that the user is unaware of our own participation in invention.

When humans did achieve the first transatlantic flight, they had few navigational systems, and no bathrooms or heaters. Imagine Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh, who were embraced for their spirit of adventure and bold daring. The first airplanes carried one person or a few people at their own cost and risk of their own life. Today, we use the internet more often than we use transportation and yet we understand it less. Its implications are creating profound effects upon our lives and yet we still cannot see the wheels or wings. How do we make transparent that which cannot be seen? How do we create a spirit of cooperation, much like the Wright brothers or Charles Lindbergh?

I am simply wondering if, as concepts become murkier and more nuanced, how do we educate a global population which is heavily dependent upon such technologies? The Ca 60’s first flight was short and its second, disastrous. Can we risk that of our websites and internet services? Yet, one idea often inspires the next. We are fortunate to have inventors willing to test their ideas, but what happens when the inventions risk issues of identity and truth? I ask this because I believe that future inventions will continue to be hidden from sight and we should find ways for dealing with such subtlety.

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