What invention would the world be better without?
And God said, “It is not good for humans to be alone” (Gen. 1:18).
In 1999 I bought a 1984 Volkswagen Westfalia Camper Van in a moment of futuristic nostalgia. At the time of its purchase it already had about 350,000 km on the odometer, but I thought it might still have enough life left to produce many fond memories of family road trips and camping pleasure without the pain of on-the-ground tenting. Dubbed by my wife Louisa as “Bob’s bright green pleasure machine” (see photo), it served us valiantly and well (though not economically) for about 10 years.
The inaugural 10-day road trip with what I dubbed “The Beast” was made with my good friend Barry. It was a lovely trip marred only by the fact that my cheap digital camera recorded my photos as undecipherable kaleidoscopic shards of pixilated images.
It was also a long road trip, and at one point we got to discussing the bane and blessings of modern technology. We challenged ourselves with the following question: “If there were three modern (post-1850) inventions/technologies that each of us would have the power to un-invent for the betterment of the world, what would they be and why?” We decided to give ourselves three days to mull this over.
Cost vs benefit
What I still remember is that, without discussion, we amazingly agreed on the top three inventions that we thought the world would be better without, and in the same order. We picked 1) the personal automobile; 2) TV and, 3) the Internet. (If the smart phone and social media been developed by 1999, they might well have made our list.) Our justification primarily had to do with our belief that each of these inventions contributes to human isolation and loneliness.
The personal automobile has been (and still is) the primary contributor to urban sprawl, leading to familial separation and community disintegration.
Television, with its pre-made images, has largely robbed us of our ability to use our own imaginations and competes mightily with face-to-face interaction. Think, for example, of the demise of a shared family dinner.
The internet, with its overwhelming power to provide us with unlimited access to information, has diminished our respect for expert and community wisdom as everyone has become his/her own “expert.”
This is not to say that the automobile, television and the Internet don’t have their benefits; but, as media ecologist Neil Postman reminds us, for every gain that a new technology provides, it is wise to ask what is being lost as well. Barry and I decided that, in each of our three examples, the loss was greater than the gain. The task now is to figure out how we can communally mitigate the losses.