Back in the early 20th century they had a saying: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” What happened? I just don’t hear much about individual inventors any more, though I am sure they are out there. Part of the reason must be that today’s mass media don’t report on such things like they once did. Another may be that people are both afraid of getting tangled in patent and copyright lawsuits and afraid to let anyone know about their inventions for fear their ideas would be stolen. Still a third reason may be that our current cutting edge technologies are all seen as being too expensive or requiring too much knowledge for the average person to attempt, leaving invention to the academics and corporate researchers. This is all unfortunate, for individual inventiveness was surely one of the great strengths of the American economy going back to the inception of the country.
The culture of learning and invention which built human civilization into what it is today must be sustained and developed. The innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that has historically been ascribed to the United States exists in all cultures, and is in reality behind the development of our current global civilization. In the face of overpopulation, energy shortages, and pollution problems we need that spirit now more than ever. While there are reactionary forces in our cultures that oppose it on a variety of grounds, and their efforts could hamper our ability to respond to current and future challenges, the primary issue may simply be one of culture.
Fundamentalist religion is a significant source of resistance to education and a culture of invention. One clearly identifiable source of resistance comes from fundamentalist religious groups and, since their positions are based on faith and not scientific knowledge, they can be extremely difficult to reason with. Knowledge of science is critical to the effective inventor, and denying science education (or science itself), or allowing science education to be watered down or weighed down with sociopolitical abstractions does not help us learn and invent what we need to survive the coming decades. We need to actively support and elect representatives in government and business who understand the need for good science education and innovation, and who will actively support these things. We each need to personally oppose notions that some deity or other will save us, or even that technology can save us without us having to do anything. We also need to promote science (another word for knowledge) and resist those who would force teachings that are not based on science into our schools.
Do corporate interests oppose the culture of individual experimentation and invention? While most corporations aren’t likely to support funding for individual inventors and small-scale grass roots projects, that is where we come in as voters and constituents. We have the ability to tell our legislators that we put a high priority on invention and scientific development at the grass roots level. We can remind them that tomorrow’s great ideas usually sound silly or unworkable today, as otherwise we’d already have them in place.
Our shared cultural understanding is the key to increased inventiveness and innovation. There is no question that some of our more developed technologies have high barriers as far as the financial investment and knowledge needed. We could still use a better mouse trap, though. Also, most innovation in high technology areas is based on synthesis of existing technologies and not basic research, which can be esoteric and pricey. The problem is more likely that we have allowed the legends of great individual inventors to fade from our culture. Do teachers in schools spend as much time as they might on the lives and accomplishments of great individual inventors? I think that a deep glimpse into the life, the daily habits, the personal challenges and triumphs of individual inventors like Nikola Tesla, for example, can inspire young people and connect deeply with at least some of them. Learning lists of their inventions doesn’t do it. Students need to acquire a feeling of connection with inventors of the past and present on a very human level if we are to foster the culture of innovation and possibility we once had.
Restoring a strong culture of invention is possible, but requires our active help. It is up to each of us to promote science and education, resist reactionary movements that would hold us back as a civilization, keep and spread a positive an outlook that gives people hope and justifies creative efforts, and avoid letting people become discouraged or give up. Too many people are in that state of mind already, and the situation needs to be turned around. We also each need to keep asking our government and corporate representatives to do the right things, to think long term, to promote creativity in their organizations and in our educational systems, and to work with us to create a sustainable global situation. Doing so may require lifetimes and a lot of innovation, but the alternatives are grim. Hopefully we can mitigate, if not actually avoid, the negative effects of our problems, but how well we do this will depend on our culture, as much as anything else, and the creative thinking and innovation of individuals. Our actions are needed, and our descendants will appreciate the efforts we put forth on their behalves.
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks in advance – Tim