Harrison Middleton University

Rethinking Invention

Rethinking Invention

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


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.

To post a comment, click on the title of today’s blog and scroll down.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking Invention”

  1. I’m so grateful for these thoughtful blog postings, and I’m venturing into the world of participating in blogs and virtual discussions, so I’m enjoying the challenge of thinking about how much of a response might be best for a particular posting….

    “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
    Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
    –T.S. Eliot

    Any time I see the word "invention," I can’t help but think about its kinship to the notion of "inventory" and the ways that classical orators recommended taking inventory of one’s topics and potential strategies for persuasion as part of the rhetorical canon of invention. Such language might sound archaic, but I think that modern inventors and their inventions have strong affinities with ancient wisdom embedded in the canons of rhetoric.

    Reading today’s posting stimulated many varieties of my own mental inventory-taking and hyperlinking consciousness and–much the way one might binge watch Netflix episodes of several seasons–I began mentally binge-responding to many previous HMU posts, which I won’t itemize as I go.

    I wonder if we are not sometimes entrenched in thinking of progress as a linear, channeled, parallel series of experiences and developments, and that we are either becoming more advanced technologically and culturally, or mutually and exclusively advanced in one area or another. Do we get smarter technology that actually makes use dumber? One might enjoy watching Nicholas Carr discuss this with Stephen Colbert during an old Comedy Central episode. Or, is the relationship of technology more of a dynamic and recursive ebb-and-flow of give-and-take progressions and regressions with and among technology, culture, and personal growth? Words crack, strain, and break as I try to wrangle these associations into some sort of intelligible discourse.

    I would enjoy having the ghost of Aristotle join Matthew Crawford in discussing Alissa’s question: "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?" Aristotle thought that hands-on-work was detrimental to the intellectual and moral development of a healthy, free citizen. Matthew Crawford argues that the lack of and devaluing of hands-on-work diminishes the intellectual and moral development of many, if not all, human beings. Crawford is a motorcycle maintenance and repair guru who also wields some heavy-duty academic degrees, ranging from science to the humanities. At
    the beginning of Crawford’s TEDTalk on "Manual Competence," he discusses the notion of an "idiot light." It’s the mechanic’s nickname for the dashboard light in older cars that signaled that your oil was low. In contrast, some high-end cars don’t even have dipsticks but actually send the owner an email that it’s time to take the car to the nearest available service station for maintenance. Crawford notes that some etymological root of the word idiot means "hands off." Crawford’s discussions of philosophy are rich in their suggestions that we learn much by tinkering with our philosophies as well as our technologies.

    As a high school teacher and small-town community member, I see a range of technology users. Some can’t help but be curious about how their technology works, and the notice how it works on their own consciousness, experiences, and habits. They sometimes "fast" and go out into the woods or deep into some hands-on project. They seem to develop user-wisdom. At the other extreme of technology users, I see unfortunate slaves and junkies. They illustrate all sorts of addiction-level habits and deep levels of cluelessness in relation to their technology.
    In my earlier years of working at a local guest ranch as a dude wrangler, I saw many corporate executives go through a sort of technology communication detox process. The first few days they nervously twitched at the absence of information and connection. By mid-week, they became delightfully rested and re-humanized. Those summers of guest ranch life for me were television free, but when I reentered my college town I would frequently catch myself mesmerized by the idiot box.

    Trying out different hands-on experiences of tinkering and inventing seems very healthy. For me, it’s often some sort of scratch-building of remote control aircraft that go through build-fly-crash cycles. Sometimes, I venture into minor attempts at carpentry or furniture making. I learn much from listening to and talking to experienced people in these areas. Sometimes a youtube video provides help for deepening my hands-on experience and knowledge. I fix many of my own computer problems by searching for how-to videos via Google. So, maybe there are ways to blend and enrich personal growth and cultural dimensions while still interacting thoughtfully with technology? In thinking about invention and technology discussions, I notice the value of thinking about bodily experience in relation to one’s interactions with technology, whether it be an automobile, television, smartphone, or Internet. I just need to frequently remind myself and others to do so in healthy and timely ways.

    John Reynolds

    "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." T.S. Eliot

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