Ask a ScienceBlogger: Worst Technology Ever

The Powers That Be at Seed/ ScienceBlogs are initiating a new feature, cleverly called “Ask a ScienceBlogger,” in which they will pose one question a week to the group of us, and we’ll answer (or not) as we choose. The inaugural question was posted last night:

If you could cause one invention from the last hundred years never to have been made at all, which would it be, and why?

(Why they’ve chosen to roll this out on a Friday, when nobody reads blogs over the weekend, I have no idea… I just work here.)

Some thoughts on the question below the fold:

This is the part where I reveal the reason why I’m an academic scientist, and not a billionaire entrepreneur: I’m constitutionally incapable of giving a clear and unqualified answer to even a simple question.

Most of the easy answers– things like cell phones– are not a matter of inherent problems with the technology (instantaneous communication with anyone on the planet is a Good Thing), but rather a problem with the uses the street finds for things (calling people from inside the airplane to say “We’ve landed, I’ll meet you at baggage claim” is Stupid). Even apparently good answers like RPM and Razib jumping on “atomic weapons” are problematic. It’s not that I’m a big fan of nuclear explosions, mind, but I don’t think you can have nuclear power without some bright boy inventing nuclear weapons, and nuclear power is and will be important to have. John Lynch’s answer is probably as close as you can come to an invention with no upside, but as noted in comments, even landmines sometimes serve a useful purpose.

I have a hard time coming up with an actual technological answer, but I’ll take my cue from Dr. Free-Ride (“embedded advertising”), and recognize that we live in a world where ideas and “business models” are patentable as inventions. The idea from the last hundred years (or so) that I’d most like to get rid of is the idea that absolutely everything in the world ought to be organized along the lines of short-term market capitalism.

Don’t get me wrong– capitalism itself is the best system we’ve found for large-scale economic organization. What I object to is the idea that since it works well for corporations manufacturing concrete products, it must be the One True System to organize things that are fundamentally different than corporate industry, most notably scientific research, education, and the provision of health care. I think the idea that hospitals, schools, and research institutions ought to be run like businesses, focussed on short-term profits and losses, is one of the most pernicious and corrosive ideas to hit our society in the last century. If we could get rid of that notion, and accept that there are areas of human enterprise that need to be run on a long-term, non-economic basis, I think we’d be a better, healthier culture as a result.

Also, I’d like a pony.

What idea or invention would you get rid of?

10 thoughts on “Ask a ScienceBlogger: Worst Technology Ever

  1. and recognize that we live in a world where ideas and “business models” are patentable as inventions.

    This is the invention from the last hundred years that I’d get rid of.

    I completely agree with you that the concept of getting rid of a technological invention is troublesome. Technology usually isn’t the problem, it’s how it’s used– but I have another problem beyond that. If we say “I wish nobody had invented the atomic bomb,” great. But that just means somebody will later. If it can be done, and if it can be done practially, given enough time eventually it will be. The trick is learning how to live with the consequences of having that technology, not just making it go away.

    But there are lots of social inventions that are terrible things. And, software patents and business method patents are two of those things that arose in the last hundred years (as extensions of more traditional patents) that I wish we’d never come up with.

    As an astronomer, another one is “landscape lighting.” Terrible waste of energy, terrible to just throw photons upwards where nobody needs them and it blots out our view of the sky.


  2. Calvinism. The brands of Christianity beyond Lutherans and Episcopalians which put judging others at the top of their list of Godly activities.

  3. Interesting question, though inherently almost meaningless, since very few nontrivial inventions of the last century were independent breakthroughs; most were part of general technological advancement, and if they didn’t happen in one form they would have happened in another.

    The closest one I can think of is Teller-Ulam fusion. Unlike fission or even other fusion concepts, which can be used for power production and other positive uses like radioisotope production, T-U fusion is so far useful only for weapons. Alas, even in that case, a strong argument can be made that without T-U fusion, we’d have either had an atomic war (since the full-scale MAD deterrent would have been absent), or had a basically similar arms race/cold war but with slightly different, and possibly worse, details (much more uranium and plutonium production, for instance).

    I know computer scientists who’d argue that BASIC corrupted more young minds than anything else invented in the last hundred years 🙂

    Trivial or non-technical options abound, of course. Employer-paid health insurance?

  4. Here are a couple that I posted on Janet’s blog.

    1. Software – Microsoft Windows 3.0, and all 3.x descendants.

    2. Urban planning – The Robert Moses template of city and neighborhood destruction in the service of concrete, steel, and the automobile.

    3. Transportation – The US Interstate Highway system and it’s derivatives that destroyed public mass transit and contributed to polution and global warming.

    4. Entertainment – Single frequency (band-splitting) stereo FM broadcasting, instead of using two radio frequencies for each of the stereo channels. It was a giant leap backward in radio broadcast technology and quality.

    5. Politics – Airconditioning in the US Capitol Building. Before that, our elected officials closed shop in the summer and went home to their constituents.

    6. Business – Ink jet cartridges that cost $30.00 but should retail for $2.99.

  5. Agreed about business models. Add to that an idea that CEO or CEO-like person is needed to manage the company/lab.

    Here’s my top 10 inventions we could have done better without:

    1. Flash web advertisements in a shape of tornado (just kidding).

    2. Spam-distributing software, viruses and spyware.
    3. Mercury tooth fillings, mercury-containing vaccines, lead paint, asbestos and other not so good ideas, in retrospect.
    4. Cigarettes.
    5. Drive throughs (in fast food places).
    6. Telemarketing.
    7. Low-rise pants, mini-skirts and thongs in extra-large size (seriously – those should never be worn!). Also uggs, mullets, 1980ies fashion clothes.
    8. Reality shows (we could do just fine without them).
    9. Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpsons, TomCat, tabloids, and other pop-crap. But then I would miss VH1 shows like “Best week ever” making fun of it, so I am a bit conflicted.
    10. Scientology and Creationism.

  6. Any result in modern physics is likely to be turned into a weapon sooner or later. I’m thinking of neutron bombs, electromagnetic bombs, nuclear weapons, lasers, railguns, coilguns (the Pentagon seems to be ‘studying’ these things) …
    Those silly chemists get to develop nothing but toys compared to the stuff physicists build.

    By the way: Calvinism might have turned out to be a blessing to the Western economy. According to Max Weber, a sociologist whose work is popular to this day, Calvinism underlies the succes of our Western economy and capitalism.

  7. According to Max Weber, a sociologist whose work is popular to this day, Calvinism underlies the succes of our Western economy and capitalism.

    Too bad the Chinese and the Japanese are not Calvinists.

  8. Hmm nobody went for individualised (or generically, “private”) cars? It is said that Gillete got a good discussion with Ford about this model of life, one hundred years ago.

  9. While I agree that running education and research as businesses or using a capitalistic model, what is your model for education etc? I’ve had the idea as of late that a socialist system with complete (and by complete I mean every aspect of the operation is open source and traceable with personal privacy for the lives of the workers) might be a better way to reduce the problems in education funding and the bottlenecks in the spread of ideas (the u.s. system maintains little central planning which is both nice and a curse in that each city or school district has to choose to adopt newer forms of educational theory and practice which in the end means debate must occur, but in reality has more to do with city government change and getting people who are engaged with education into power). My point being, what if grades and everything else were open source? If scientests could comment directly on experiments, text books, and lesson plans, economists could compile data sets instaneously from the information available, etc.?

    As for health care I’m not so sure. Billions are lost by businesses each year developing drugs, further socializing the system would mean putting price caps on drug prices in an industry in which prices need to fluctuate a lot to make up for the cost of research. In the end the companies spending and losing billions and paying taxes to do it no less, would have to be subsidized by the government, unless you’re proposing that researchers could just live for free and the government pays for all the research stuff such as in Cuba. What strikes me a better component is to actually enforce patent and copyright law and makes the thousands of no longer commercially viable drugs developed over the past 100 years into generics that would take down the price of providing health care to those who can’t afford it.

    But what is your plan?

  10. I didn’t mean to start an argument about the merits of astrophysics vis-a-vis other subfields of physics. In fact, the purpose of my comment was simply to ask, “What is different and possibly better about astrophysics that causes women graduate students to prefer it by 2:1 over other physics subfields?” This is a big effect!

    I used the term “astronomy” rather than “astrophysics” just because that’s what most departments are called. And, BTW, there is a unified department of Physics and Astronomy at MIT, the big physics factory where I went to grad school. I have the impression that separate departments of astrophysics are few.

    To summarize, I believe that we could double the participation of women across physics if we could figure out what astrophysics is doing better.

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