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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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Mundane Inventions

July 7, 2017

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

The list that follows are a few inventions that we often take for granted. These mundane items offer a way of analyzing the cultural values and technologies on which we rely (sometimes without knowing it!). Enjoy!

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO):

Though highly contentious and ethically problematic, GMO has made it to the mainstream. This is less of an invention that we take for granted, and more of one that we know little about. Only the savvy consumer realizes that GMO items are in our clothes, food, and products. Originally, farmers saved seeds as the best method of reproduction. Unfortunately, crops were susceptible to pests and weather, so genetic modification made them heartier. As with all inventions, however, there is a potential fallout from tampering with nature. Making plants resistant also made insects evolve. There are many pros and cons, but it is worth investigating since a lot of the products that we depend upon also depend upon genetic modification. A better understanding of the science behind both the pros and cons can be found here.

Toilet Paper:

This might be the most mundane item on today's list, but an indispensible one. Yet, it is a relatively modern development, and one that inspires very little conversation. As with all inventions that have arisen to such mainstream status, it is good to look at the product from the outside to determine how it can be improved. As you can imagine, toilet paper first became available to royalty. The sheet size and makeup greatly differed depending upon culture and technology. However, it was not until the late 1800s that toilet paper became its own product. Closely linked to the paper-making process, it rose to popularity after Scott Paper Company placed it on rolls in 1890. Find a full history in the Toilet Paper Encyclopedia.

Disposable:

The idea of disposable is fascinating to unpack. Merriam-Webster notes that its first known use goes back to 1643, but has little information on that usage. Instead, the first applications of disposable products arrives in the late 1900s, with the rise of such products as disposable diapers and disposable spoons and cups. As we begin to throw away items of luxury, so too, disposable becomes an adjective which describes things like income. Disposable income, Merriam-Webster claims, is “income available for disposal”. I find that definition confusing at best. Today, our society heavily depends upon disposable products such as gloves, diapers and cups, just to name a few. It is important to look at the things we rely upon to better understand our current culture, as well as gauge what might be best for the future. For example, while disposable gloves have certainly helped the medical field, are disposable cups a necessity? Meant for travel or emergencies, many disposable objects have become mainstream, daily requirements. This trend directly correlates to our increasingly mobile lives. The conversation leads into a wonderful discussion of what is culturally beneficial, helpful or otherwise, necessary.

Find more on disposable cups or disposable diapers or disposable gloves.

Pockets:

Did you know that, according to Merriam-Webster, pocket can mean “a small bag carried by person”? This seems odd at first because a pocket is clearly not a bag. Yet, they did originate from bags, which is why Merriam-Webster also lists “a small bag sewn into a garment” as an alternative definition. The pocket, a seemingly mundane object, has a dozen turns of phrase. It has gained a number of metaphors because of its utility and significance. And maybe because of its secret contents. Authors are quick to pick up on such cues, and we find mentions of pockets strewn throughout literature.

Women's pockets and men's pockets developed separately and for slightly different reasons. Other than the fact that both seem to have originated as well-hidden spaces, they diverged from there. Women nowadays often carry money, phones and whatever else in a purse or handbag. Prior to that, mimicking men's pockets, women resorted to well hidden belts. (These greatly challenged the skills of a pick-pocket, which was a pretty sophisticated crime in retrospect). The original pockets would have been hidden under layers of clothing and attached to a belt of sorts, rather than their actual clothes. Women's pockets were difficult to access, whereas men's pockets were sewn into their interior coat linings or inside their suits.

Men have often used pockets for money, food and cigarettes or whatever else they might need. Prior to that, men often used knapsacks to carry food, hunting supplies or supplies. Since the invention of the pocket, men's clothing has found suitable ways of creating useful pockets. Size is understandably of importance: too large makes clothing overly bulky and too small makes the pocket useless. The Victoria and Albert Museum claims, “In contrast to the delicate, embroidered pockets of the 18th century, those of the 19th century are larger and quite plain.” This may be true of men's suits, but women's pockets remained fiercely attached to fashion trends, which often interrupt utility. It appears that women's clothing continues to create designs based off of look rather than purpose (though it can be argued that aesthetics serve a purpose, but that is discussion for a different day). Is it really that surprising to find that something so mundane as a pocket has a political history too?!

Recipes:

Food is a wormhole of investigation. One thing leads to another and really, it can be successfully combined in so many ways since success depends upon your very subjective tastebuds. Imagine, however, trying to create a delicious loaf of bread without a recipe. Not so long ago, recipes depended upon terms that lacked any specificity. Terms like “a dash” or a “handful” or “large” mean nothing to the inexperienced cook. Trial and error rules the day with recipe development. It is painstaking and often extremely aggravating. At times, however, a successful recipe grants a certain level of pride. This very interesting (and ambitious) website attempts to offer a timeline of foods, providing rough dates and cultural attachments. It is a fascinating journey through human civilization.

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