Niagara Gazette

November 17, 2013

SINGER: Tackling our technological ingratitude

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — We — myself included — often take the benefits of technical innovation for granted, innumerable gizmos and conveniences maintaining us in the style to which we’re accustomed. The result? We now deem many of these things legated to us as inalienable rights!

You get a sense of how hyper-inventive people once were from Daniel Boorstin’s old book, “The Americans: The Democratic Experience,” focused not on politicians, but on types like a Vermont farm boy, Otis, inventing an elevator for among other places, New York’s Macy’s (itself successful due to strides in the plate glass-making industry, sewing machines impelled by huge uniform needs of the Civil War, etc.). The author discusses one Borden, stunned by the Donner Pass tragedy and despite nay sayers, inventing condensed milk. Not to mention those who made canned goods of all varieties safe, and on it went.

I also remember reading a biography of Charles Kettering (his name now associated with a prestigious New York cancer center) — like Otis, a farm boy, in his case from Ohio, who observed the persnickety behavior of cranks to get cars going. Sometimes they obstinately spun out of control and busted shoulders of people cursing them on frosty mornings.

Kettering worked obsessively until ready to take his invention to Detroit — nothing short of a device to create self-starting vehicles we again take for granted. You apprehend the dizzying pace of such changes from other books like Frederick Lewis Allen’s classic on the ‘20s “Only Yesterday” (1931) and Sinclair Lewis’ fine novel of that era, “Babbitt.”

But a more observable sense of such innovation comes from visiting the Corning Museum of Glass, open all but four days of the year. And here it’s not just glass for tumblers, chess sets, or Pyrex containers once miraculously invented to avoid shattering at great temperatures; but applications for telescopes and more sophisticated equipment. Plus gorgeous art (giant colored glass fruits especially leap out at you). The Corning gift shop reveals an American cornucopia that rested entirely on laborious innovation, and which again, many of us take for granted.

You can also watch the vase-making process by a pro, and read displays on early path finders like Michael Owens (his name part of Owens Corning), creating a bottle-making machine at a time when amateurs loved tinkering — as hands-on believers in their country’s ever rosier future.

You also learn of fortunate accidents, such as Prohibition diminishing the market for these bottles, impelling the hunt for what became lucrative fiberglass — to make insulation, fishing rods, you name it.

I know that regional engineers could give us many other innovative examples from the hard work performed in chemical factories that boomed in these parts. All of which makes me feel like an ignorant inheritor, blindly taking what once took such persistence and industry to make functional.

In “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” (1976), Daniel Bell amplified Marx’ dictum that the bourgeoisie would become their own grave-diggers. For Bell, capitalism had thrived by the values of puritanical discipline and plain hard work. But it produced a culture (not least, the ‘60s counter-culture) very much its opposite. I used to think of that regarding uses of Polaroid cameras, Edward Land’s great invention; but of course computers and the internet far out-trump Polaroid in terms of what pioneers like Bill Gates gave us by their innovations in that domain. But what they also wrought was discipline-eroding facility for gamers and so forth.

Speaking of gambling, few of us understands what patient engineering went into creating the machines and even the sounds that jangle inside local casinos — that dissonant symphony of tune snippets you hear, not to mention cell phone rings, and so much else.

So — would we be better off remaining in the forests as Rousseau’s noble savages, and who needs canned goods, phones, and the rest? But again, we’ve grown used to what we have — technological manna that more and more, seems an entitlement.

However, this push-button facility deludes people into thinking the world’s a rational place — as rational as a machine. When of course it ain’t necessarily so! ...

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.