“Men collectively, for instance, never have a joint creative impulse, and rarely, any kind of joint positive impulse, except when it is instilled into them by one man. A crowd of people never painted a picture, wrote a book, composed a song, or spontaneously hit upon the idea of doing much of anything else that was constructive. Even in primitive societies, doing or building is the result of conference in which individuals speak their minds. The acts of crowds, when crowds act at all, are almost wholly negative. Lynching and murder, torture, arson, stampede, stoning, persecution, heckling, fugue, rage, and other destructive processes are the frequent manifestations of gatherings of common people that, often enough, start for other purposes. True, mass rape and orgy could be construed as a creative act, but aside from that it is axiomatic that crowd behavior, if it takes any objective form, will take a fiendish one.”
Philip Wylie, 1942
In 1976, The New York Times listed some inventions and how long it took between their conceptions and applied use. What could be added to this list to update it for the past 41 years?
Necessity is not the mother of invention. Few major discoveries have happened because of the existing need. We discover pre-existing principles, often by accident, mistake, or simple curiosity, and then try to figure out what do with them. Inventions do not come from areas of perpetual poverty. In the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or Mumbai, India, local residents only think of basic survival. Most have no formal education, expertise, or interest to work toward any goal other than meeting their daily fundamental needs. They have little free time.
Mother of Invention
Most innovations (new ideas or material traits) are contributed by individuals living in a well-educated, affluent, comfortable environment. People have the time needed to be creative. For several decades, California’s Silicon Valley has been a major center of innovation. A new invention appears almost daily, it seems. But only a small number of them end up being used. They are created, but no application is found for them.
Looked another way, it can be said that “invention is the mother of necessity.” We have something and then may find a use for it. Before the automobile was developed, humans often traveled by horse and buggy. In many places, laws were passed to limit or even prevent the use of automobiles, or “The Devil’s carriage” as it was called by some. The first automobiles were clumsy and impractical machines and most roads were inadequate. It took several decades before the automobile became widely accepted. Over thirty years passed between an idea to create fluorescent lightning and the beginning of widespread use. A vehicle that runs exclusively on water (by separating oxygen and hydrogen) already exists in Japan. Still, it may never find its way to mass production, because the existing automotive industry does not like such competition.
Despite being aware of the benefits of a particular invention, barriers to applied use are always in place. They are removed once the invention begins to serve as a major source of income to corporations. They, in turn, do not want to invest unless the invention is commercially feasible and attractive to consumers. Corporations want to exhaust all possible profits from the existing product before they market new inventions. Think how long it took to replace audio tapes, despite having the ability to produce, sell, and widely market affordable compact discs. Can you list ten items that, if implemented earlier, would have improved global connections and the quality of life?
[Adapted from my book One World Or Many?, 2010]
In our society the past is perceived as unappealing, rather than something to be excited about, and—in almost all aspects of life—is considered to be inferior to what certainly will be a glorious future. Much of it has to do with inventions and their applied use (while making an almighty dollar!) that continuously stimulate us to conform to the needs of those who are selling us the latest invention.
Looking back on 1942, 1976, or 2010, can we say that we are experiencing an evolutionary peak? As a result, should we conclude that we live better today than, for example, twenty years ago? How were the United States—and the rest of the world—doing in 1997 and how are we doing in 2017?
Figure 1. Landscape of eastern Kentucky. (Photograph by the author.)
“When the end of the world comes I want to be in Kentucky, because it’s always twenty years behind,” reads a quote apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain. By that definition Kentucky is now in 1997.
Perhaps we should warn the good people of Kentucky that, despite all inventions and their applications designed to improve the quality of life in the past twenty years, the humans are perfectly capable of applying them in a retrograde fashion.
Necessity is not a mother of invention, and necessity for building the right future should rely not on inventions pushed onto us by corporations. In Kentucky of 1997, they still have time to avoid the mistake the rest of us have already committed.