Friday, June 01, 2007


I was doing some research on how we invent - and what's the "mother of inventions!" - here is what I found:

THE DAWN OF MAN Began eleven thousand years ago. (I think it was a Thursday.) This is interesting for many reasons, but one specific factoid has always amazed me: The wheel was not invented until 5000 B.C., probably by the Mesopotamians. This means that for roughly four thousand years, people were just dragging stuff around. Now, I realize folks were a little less forward thinking in those days, and they probably directed most of their creative energy toward raping and killing each other. But didn't anybody notice that decapitated skulls rolled downhill? The British didn't start using the wheel until 500 B.C. Somehow, they needed 8,500 years to come up with the wheel but only 10,980 years to come up with Def Leppard. These are curious priorities.

I find myself thinking about the invention of the wheel whenever I send someone a text message. This is not because I own a round cell phone; this is because text messaging represents a certain kind of invention: Texting is Antiwheel Technology. What this means is that the advent of texting is completely antithetical to the advent of the wheel. The wheel was something everyone needed for centuries, and I'm sure that need was conscious. I have no doubt that primitive people were constantly thinking, There must be a better way to haul these rocks. What tool could make this easier? In retrospect, the wheel was an obvious solution to a problem everyone was aware of—yet it still took thousands of years. Text messaging is precisely the opposite: It's the solution to a desire I never even knew I had, and it came into existence long before anyone was demanding it.

When I first bought a cell phone—this was autumn 2001—certain people were already texting each other. My thought at the time was, What a bunch of idiots. Texting didn't seem sensible, because a) it seemed much harder than making a phone call, and b) the only people who seemed to text effectively were under the age of sixteen. The only scenario I could imagine in which texting might be useful would be if I were kidnapped by terrorists and needed to quietly inform loved ones that I was about to be executed by religious zealots. Still, that possibility seemed to warrant buying a phone with texting capability; like I said, this was autumn 2001.

I didn't send a single text message until the summer of 2005, and when I did, it was almost certainly because I was drunk. To my surprise, I discovered that I loved texting. Very often, I (apparently) want to tell people information that is so inane and trivial that it does not even justify making a phone call. Here are five of my most recent text messages:

"I am eating donut."
"That was some quality tickling!"
"Hide the bottles."
"I am shopping for a car."

It would be imprecise to claim that texting has changed the way I communicate, because it didn't replace any existing method of communication in my life. Texting has created a completely new genre of personal expression: the postextraneous sentiment. Sometimes I text sentences I wouldn't waste my time saying aloud, even if the recipient were standing right next to me. I can't text complex thoughts because it's too time-consuming to push the little buttons, and I can't figure out how to generate apostrophes. (I text the way Data talks on Star Trek: The Next Generation —no contractions.) Nonetheless, nobody ever minds getting a text message, regardless of how frivolous the content may be. For some reason, texting feels substantially less intrusive than e-mail; it doesn't have much upside, but it's wholly devoid of downside.

My suspicion is that Antiwheel Technology will become the predominant mode of mechanical innovation, mostly because we're running out of unsolved problems. We've always assumed that necessity is the mother of invention, but what happens when necessity no longer exists? Society has evolved beyond the stage of building a better mousetrap; metaphorically, we now have mousetraps that can kill buffalo. It's becoming harder and harder to think of new everyday things that we want or need, and that creates a completely new paradigm for inventors. It makes the process of invention less practical and more abstract: We now have to come up with solutions to problems that don't exist.

My refrigerator makes things colder and my stove makes thing hotter. But would I like a machine that immediately makes things room temperature? I suppose this can already be accomplished by "the room," but perhaps that process could be expedited. Now, I cannot fathom why I would want to do this, but I also had no idea I wanted to freeze live TV. I had no idea I wanted to tell people I was eating donut. Perhaps this theoretical machine would revolutionize the way I consume semiwarm food.

Would I like to find a way to watch TV faster ? This possibility never occurred to me until just now, but maybe I'd love it. What if there were an iPod that also operated as a small air conditioner? It might be good for camping. Granted, I'm just kind of "blue-skying" here, but this is an unusual problem. It's difficult to predict things in the present that will feel unpredictable in the future.

The wheel is awesome, and the wheel was a long time coming. It was probably worth four millennia of consternation and regret. But I eagerly await the Next Wheel, which will undoubtedly take me by surprise.

No comments:

Post a Comment