Friday, July 16, 2021

On Invention; I Am Become Irony, Interpreter of Worlds

By rights, this post should be in response to a question posed on Quora, asking about "invention." The asker seems to betray ambition to invent. Sometimes, when I'm not quite in my right mind, I take such bait, but not often. There are lots of questions like this one on Quora, and the ones I might be inclined to respond to generally imply, to me, utter ignorance in the context for the question.

No expert myself, I still feel qualified to comment on ignorance.

I am myself quite ignorant, of course, which is likely why I never respond to most questions. I would rather be thought a fool than to open my mouth and remove all doubt, sort of thing. 

Anyhow, those who do feel that they possess sure knowledge seem always to teach me something that I didn't know. I don't even know if there is a realm where I feel any sort of expertise. Competence, perhaps, but expert status, rarely!

But here I go, on what is, by far, a less public forum. Mine. I am the only expert here. So expert that no-one dares to comment.

The term "invention" always implies an individual coming up with something de novo and changing the world thereby. But even the roots of the word are more about discovery than invention, as the word "invention" is deployed in common usage. 

Discovery implies, of course, much ground being laid ahead of time by many many more people than the discoverer. Our fixation on fixing who's first and giving them a Name is much more about our particular Western ways of viewing history than it is about anything real. 

We value individuals and we value individualism, when we value anything at all. Our economy values individualism. Our constitution enshrines it. 

As I've commented here before, it is patently absurd for Jeff Bezos to call himself an inventor, and then to claim personal responsibility for all the value-added that he attributes to Amazon. Fine, give him credit and lay at this feet the cost of all the "creative" destruction that he unleashed by simply being that unbound by scruple of any sort. 

He certainly never thought of doing good for the world, unless one wishes to make those thoughts continuous with getting us to Mars. That would be abandonment. He is a garden variety capitalist marauder is all, writ a little bit more large, and with a little bit less concern for lives of his (ever temporary) workers. It would be hard for me to ascribe anything like genius to his moves. And harder still to find any value added. The world changed, and now we can't do without Amazon. Brilliant! Give me a patent on climate change!

Many ascribe the interstate highway system to President Eisenhower. But at least he warned us about the Military Industrial Complex that it subserved. The excuse for building it was to have a way to mobilise troops across our vast continental expanse, in case of invasion. 

Now try to imagine anyone succeeding in blocking such a massive public works. In hindsight, attempts to block it might be based on the environmental destruction that so many cars unleashed would wreak upon the land. But with military and economic imperatives aligned, of course there would be no way to succeed in any blockage. Indeed high speed limited access roadways have since covered the earth. They must have been inevitable. They surely made many of us enthusiastic about long distance car vacations, obsolete though those might be just now. 

In effect, that massive public expenditure offloaded onto the public the larger cost of the private vehicles and motive power. And we were happy to afford our cars - thanks Big Anti-Semite Henry Ford! - for the sense of independence they provided. Building high speed railways would surely have been cost-prohibitive and would never have provided the engine to the economy that family motoring would.

I descend from a line of inventors and players in these transformative developments, from both sides of my family. West Point, Westinghouse, the computer math behind miniaturized electronic circuitry, the limited access highway, radar . . . 

Guilty! I would be an inventor as well, except that invention has been exposed finally as fraud. Says me. Not quite so much credit should accrue to one just lucky enough to arrive first at a solution that looks inevitable in hindsight every time. 

And anyhow, it's always a mixed bag. The prizes should go to the ones who set out the best moral path to take in taking advantage of the inventions. I'm sure that Albert Einstein would take back his contributions to making the Bomb real, if he could. 

I would highlight the irony: That we celebrate the very thing that we deny. We deny that we can deflect progress, and see our advances as inevitable even as we celebrate individuals as though none of it would have come about without them. 

I declare that our own celebrated age of innovation is, in fact, stuck in a paradigm which should have shifted long ago. Indeed I can date the shift because I might have caused it my very own selfie-self. I failed to cause it. I feel guilty, truth be told. What an arrogant shit that makes me!

The trouble was and is that nobody wants this wonderful paradigm to shift; the one where individuals invent stuff and we celebrate those individuals with riches beyond imagining, and that is right and good and just. Even though it resembles the middle-ages for the power structures that we put back in place all over again. How much rent do you pay to the new rentiers, hein? You think it's free?

Truly no-one wants to listen to anything new which doesn't increase human agency; still against nature. Even though that agency is owned by so few. It's the principle that counts.

Responsibility for our inventiveness devolves to the people as a whole, and is by and large postponed on excuse of the incredible pace of improvements to knowledge and understanding. We shall be so much more ready to take responsibility in the future. We are still but children.

In fact we are afraid of choice. We want only agency, and our belief structures dictate - dogmatically - that our choice is subsumed by the agency afforded by our discoveries. There was no choice about the Bomb. There was no choice about the limited access highway system. There was no choice about radar. These things were just simply so intrinsically good that one could not get in their way. Hmmmm. Is there really any order to our operations?

And so the next great discovery will likely never happen until it's far too late. Global warming is a far far more terrible destroyer than the bomb could ever be. And we must shrug just as Ayn's Atlas does. I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!

None of our inventions have been ontologically inevitable. Not one. We choose what becomes real. That doesn't make us as gods. Gods make rules. We make choices. As George Will says celebrating the man who celebrates the man who signed my diploma.
"[baseball] would emerge stronger, however, for the commissioner’s office had come through a difficult test with its absolute powers affirmed, and the principle established that no man, no matter how exalted, was above the game itself. For Giamatti, the whole episode had been about two things: living by the rules, and taking responsibility for one’s actions….

Which rules might we live by now? Does all invention become insurrection, then? Now? George Will gets his digs in on the "Nanny State." He is, after all, 'to the manor born.' As was A. Bartlett Giamatti. As am I. Sort of. "Just the manor missed," as I quipped to my fellow elitist headmasters once upon a blatantly racist conversation. I was rather appalled. 

Our constitution has been misinterpreted to death, by the very partisan political processes it was meant to guard against and override. Can we ever repeal the Second Amendment, now that it's fully decontextualized? Will we cancel the First? Surely Donald Trump has been the Pete Rose of  our constitutional Game of Life. Is that what George Will is saying?

We will just keep on keeping on, until the shift is upon us. And we suddenly see that the Emperor has no clothes, while the inventor is long dead and gone and voiceless. It was a minor invention at best to see that reality is not a game. That winning is not everything. That the meek will prevail in the end. As we cry out meekly, "this is not fair."

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