Everything that Can Be Invented Has Been Invented*

March 8, 2010

Anything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science. The whole history of mankind is nothing but science fiction.
• Ray Bradbury

I think it was Star Trek that first helped me imagine a world that could be made better by technology. As I watched Kirk and Spock and the crew vanish and reappear, I longed to be transported wherever I wanted to go. I still do. But no. I’m still doing the I-5 shuffle whenever I want to go from southern Oregon to southern Cali or northern WA. Oh, I can take a bus or a train or a plane, but there’s no instant access to my loved ones. The primary advances in my auto travel over the decades are air conditioning and cruise control. Both are boons, but neither meets the promise of my dreams.

I read lots of science fiction when I was growing up mainly because a boyfriend loved it and passed his paperbacks on to me, hoping for long conversations about his favorites. None of the imaginings struck me as particularly interesting or necessary. I felt the same way about Monsanto’s Home of the Future at Disneyland. From June 1957 until it closed ten years later, this house perched on the border of Tomorrowland introduced the world to miracles like microwave ovens and picture phones and electric toothbrushes and lots and lots of plastic. The ultramodern and synthetic hold little appeal for me. I’ve always preferred wood to plastic and the infinite complexity of stuff to the clean lines of modernity.

I admit to being nostalgic for the simplicity of life in what is probably the neverwas, but somehow, the insidious creepage of the future isn’t what I imagined it would be. Life has not been made easier; it’s become more complex, and not in ways that delight me. Certainly I appreciate a microwave oven, but we hardly ever use ours except to thaw things. I remember our first oven well and the lessons I took that purported to teach me how to produce six course meals in a snap after work using nothing but my RadarRange®. Yeah, right. Have you ever tried to cook a turkey in a microwave oven? Don’t. And don’t serve a tea drinker water boiled in one either. Eeuw. Nasty.

And then there was our first VCR. A Betamax. Certainly that was a handy little item, and I admit freely that I now love Netflix® and our Roku® box. But have these things made my life better? Definitely not. They only feed my bad pop culture habits and waste time. Thank goodness I seldom really watch anything or I’d never get anything else done. Ditto with most of what’s happening on my computer, the little time suckage machine that has racheted up expectations for accomplishment in multiple areas of my life.

So here’s what I think about as I see a television advertisement for a 3D television (of marginal appeal—I don’t want to have to wear those stupid headache-inducing glasses at home) and an advertisement for Volvo’s car that slows or stops itself before a collision (an excellent innovation, although I hope no substitute for paying attention on the road): What would make the world better? Not faster. Not more efficient. Better. One of the reasons to go to school is to be a part of imagining a better world and to create the ways to achieve it, so how about you?

What do you think would make the world better?

People ask me to predict the future when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I need better.
• Ray Bradbury, “Beyond 1984: The People Machine”

* Charles Duell, 1899, head of the United States Office of Patents, recommending the abolishment of his office.


One comment

  1. What would make the world better? Universal components to electronics. A universal AC adapter, universal printer port, universal flash drives and media cards. I love my phone camera, but then I try to get the pictures on ANYTHING and it’s a chore. Send to my husband’s phone? No, the file is too big. Get the pic on my computer? No, I need a cable then a download. Fortunately, the IT friends are driven to solve tech questions and will stay up all night to help me out.

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