Monday, June 03, 2019 1:12 PM
Garden of Eden (2019Jun03)
I think about the birth of civilization: hunter/gatherers finally figure out how to plant seeds in a single spot, then grab all the grain and store it all in clay structures that prevented rot and pilfering by vermin. This surplus of food creates leisure. It creates theft. It creates military struggle and political power.
All during that time, there were surely those who mourned the loss of simplicity—the loss of the world as a garden to be walked through. They no doubt had jokes: “Food doesn’t taste the same if you don’t find it yourself”, and so forth. I would have either been one of those people, or envied their independence from the establishment.
The natives and early settlers in North America were aware of black ooze that stood on the ground in some places. Nothing ever grew there and sometimes it even burned. Had they known that certain men planned to pump this gunk from the earth and spread it all over the ground, they woulda probly kilt the guy.
Yet only thirty years or so would pass before the popularity of the automobile allows city streets to lose their carpet of horse dung—making petroleum seem very much an agent of cleanliness. It would be another fifty years before the smog and acid rain made their presence felt—and Joni complained about the cement coatings—when petroleum would return to villain status.
When I wrote code in the Eighties, it was a nerd thing. It had to be explained to everyone because it was very demanding and intellectually challenging. There were even two levels of competency—clerical training showed one how to use a running data-entry program. Managerial training included knowing how to turn the machines on and start the programs running.
When the graphic interface (Windows and mice) debuted, I thought it was crazy—but I didn’t realize that it’s most important use was hiding the technical stuff from the average user. I’m sure the hardware nerds felt the same way about me—buying my breadboard pre-chipped and soldered and wrapped in a metal case called a PC.
The weirdest part of all this development was that all those nerds with all that dusty algebra and chemistry and physics in their heads—they were required for the creation of today’s ‘e-verse-net-web’—but now they are the Joseph Henry’s.
Joe Henry was America’s first great nerd. His work with electromagnetic induction paralleled Michael Faraday’s. It’s a historical factoid that Henry’s work in Albany, NY and Faraday’s work in London were so neck-and-neck that, while Henry’s notes show an earlier discovery, Faraday’s published paper, weeks later, makes him the hero to this day.
Henry didn’t care. I mean, he cared, of course he cared—but looking like he did was not the thing, back then. Anyhow, he kept working. But he was never quick to publish or patent—he was an idealist (at least publicly). Joseph Henry was the first to use electricity to make a bell ring across the room. He demonstrated his switches and wiring publicly, and to fellow scientists, including one Sam Morse—he even leant him equipment samples.
Morse never returned those samples—they were used as the guts for Mr. Morse’s famous Telegraph. And Morse definitely filed a patent. He wasn’t the only one. Another guy, O’Reilly, sued Morse, claiming the invention for himself. Joseph Henry rather muddled things, when called to testify on Morse’s behalf—he was more interested in pointing out his own contributions to Morse’s work (which were, truly, most of it) and explaining that he was too busy being a scientist to be filing patents or be a businessman.
Thus ended scientific naiveté in America—Joseph Henry became the head of the Smithsonian and, upon his death, had the most well-attended funeral in Washington D.C. He was a respected professor and experimenter, beloved by many—but all the profits went to less idealist men, men who saw no need to include the creator in their financial plans.
My point being that science in America is always accepted grudgingly and with derision. Acceptance is always followed by scientists being marginalized, greedy men swooping up the profits, and Americans becoming addicted to some new convenience for which they don’t even know who to thank.
Think of the perfidy—the sheer stupidity! A group of the world’s most brilliant physicists and engineers design and build the first atomic bomb. Then they hand it over to someone as bullheaded and ignorant as a politician. Smarter people than scientists might have seen this as an unsafe experiment to conduct upon our species.
When Visual Basic first hit the shelves, business-guys started coming up to me saying, yeah, I code, too. Ok, bub—yeah, you code. There was a magazine article around that time—it said it was okay that these people were coding in ignorance because, if it wasn’t right, it wouldn’t compile. O, good—nothing to worry about, then….
Businesses are so used to doing this that the first thing they ask a scientist employee to sign is a release of all ownership of any intellectual property or patents their work produces. The second thing is an NDA—so they can’t discuss being ripped off so egregiously amongst themselves.
We are not the species that stopped using petroleum as soon as we realized its dangers—we are the species that kept using petroleum right up until it killed us all. It is amazing that we lasted this long.
Can you imagine living in a world full of technology, full of pollution and toxic waste, with near-Earth orbits crowded full of satellites and space stations—and voting for some slob who tries to pass off his ignorance as an ‘opinion’? Must we finally admit that people haven’t enough self-control to fine-tune and perfect the technoscape they’ve created? Is Capitalism really the problem—or is Capitalism just the expression of human violence in ritualized form?
I’m still waiting for the Disney ending—when we are saved from ourselves by a brilliant team of scientists. But I’m afraid we’re doomed by our insistence on someone else being brilliant.