Innovation and Its Discontents


David Boaz passes along this eyepopping excerpt from a New York Times editor's review of the book They Made America, a history of American innovators:

Too much exposure to the glow of "They Made America" may generate another nagging suspicion as well: if many of these stories were told from another perspective, they would be evidence of why the United States is the Great Satan. Sir Harold's innovators filled needs, but they also generated demand—for Model T's, for plastics (Leo Hendrik Baekeland), for Maidenform bras (Ida Rosenthal), for hip-hop (Russell Simmons). They helped create the consumer culture, and in parts of the world that is nothing to be proud of. It's easy to imagine someone in a far-off place reading this book's interesting account of Elisha Otis's elevators and seeing the germ of the World Trade Center disaster.

Yeah, in that book and in that damn 19th Amendment, I guess. The author continues:

You may also find it, somewhat perversely, to be an argument for a moratorium on innovating. Somewhere along the journey from the steamboat (John Fitch) to the Google search (Larry Page and Sergey Brin), it may occur to you that innovations have morphed from being things that make life easier to being things that simultaneously make life easier and more complicated.

The steamboat? Sure, an improvement; much better than pack mules. The electric light bulb? You bet; simpler and safer and more reliable than flame. Air travel? Hmm—flights to catch, luggage to lose. Venture capital (Georges Doriot)? Don't understand it. Biotechnology (Herbert Boyer and Robert Swanson)? Really don't understand it. Twenty-four-hour news (Ted Turner)? Too much information.

Damned if that doesn't sound oddly familiar. Where have we heard this before? Ah, yeah:

One would like to ask: is there, then, no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feelings of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed? Does it mean nothing that medicine has succeeded in enormously reducing infant mortality and the danger of infection for women in childbirth, and, indeed, in considerably lengthening the average life of a civilized man?

If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no phone to hear his voice; if traveling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing infantile mortality when it is precisely that reduction which imposes the greatest restraint on us in the begetting of children, so that, taken all round, we nevertheless rear no more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for our sexual life in marriage….And, finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer.

Addendum: You know, today's Friday Funny is arguably an example of this… though unlike the editor, the cartoonist presumably means it to be a joke.