Sunday, December 19, 2010

On Inventions

The following is a reaction paper written for Science, Technology, and Society (STS) - a 3-unit, 3-hour, once-a-week subject we're currently required to take. Our teacher made us guess which 100 inventions composed Tom Philbin's list. Who our teacher is, you need not know; what the 100 inventions are, you may buy the book by Tom Philbin, whom you may hunt down in Google.

Anyone who attempts to list down humankind’s greatest inventions and narrow the roster down to a hundred never succeeds in echoing the unified sentiment of the other six billion members of his species. An invention or two – or ninety-nine – will always be left out, much to the dismay and disapproval of the person who ever gets hold of such a list. Therefore, the easiest way to not attract the ire of the many is to include the magic words: ‘personal’, ‘my’, ‘private’, as in “My Private Personal List of the World’s Greatest Inventions.” Of course, this is assuming that everyone understands the virtue of respecting one another’s opinions, which is not the case at all – but this is a totally different story in itself. Here, then, are my top three inventions.

At the top of my list is no other than the airplane. The reason for my naming it the greatest goes way beyond the fact that I correctly named it as one of Tom Philbin’s one hundred during last week’s meeting, or that I’m secretly a huge fan of the Wright Brothers (which I don’t think I am).

It’s foremost because of this peculiar love for the big metal birds of the sky, a fanaticism of some sort that runs deep down the boys of my family. It’s because I grew up to the daily roaring of engines and the sight of these huge flying machines, almost an arm’s reach in my mind’s eye as they soar past our house in the provincial suburbs. It’s because my childhood bookworm spent half his time engrossed in books and pictures of airports and commercial airliners, to the point that his teenage incarnation now has a mental pantheon of all things modern aviation. And with the current state that I’m in, it’s because airplanes have become an indelible part of my life, the carriage that can take me in an hour from home to college and back.

But the reasons go beyond my personal life, too. Because of airplanes, continents have become much closer, people brought to one another more easily, and time spent less and less whiling away on the road to wherever. The internet may be able to let us talk to loved ones ‘face-to-face’ from halfway across the globe, but the airplane can bring them right to our faces, clothes and arms and all. I’m aware, though, that pitchfork-bearing environmentalists may come chasing after me anytime now.

The second on my list is the camera. There is no point asking me as to what specific type – digital, SLR, etc.; to me, they are all the same image-capturing devices whatever the size of the lens. And the reason all of them made it to this list as a technological generic is defined by their primary function: to capture moments in time.

Imagine what it would be like today if all we could ever do to bring back the past is dig into history books that are all words, or talk endlessly about it and let the mind summon the images on its own. Not a single historical account or recollection of what’s done would ever be accurate anymore, and the only thing that we can do to bring past experiences back is to willfully wish in vain. There would only be the ‘now’ that is so fleeting, and the ‘what has been’ which we can never fully grasp again.

Writers and artists have long talked about preserving the past; historians have always insisted on reopening it; present-day techies are always into transforming it. Thanks to the camera, and as the University course Archeology 2 would have it, the past is never a distant land.

Finally, the third in my top three is something that has, for the past five years, served as a sort of lifeline for me: the eyeglasses. One may argue that the more correct term for this would be the lens, but I’m currently not exactly a big fan of contacts, so there. Anyway, let’s say that 96 million of the world’s population is either near- or far-sighted, or have astigmatism. Without eyeglasses, are these 96 million to just spend the rest of their lives bumping on walls or walking with the aid of squinting or another person? Or take President Ninoy Aquino III, for example: How is he to read a top-secret document without the precious eyeglasses? Truly, the eyeglasses transcend personal use; they have become integral to the internal functioning system of humankind.

The rest of my list is as follows:

4. wrist watch

5. shoes

6. the World Wide Web

7. paper

8. flashlight

9. toothbrush

10. calendar

To repeat what I’ve pointed out earlier, lists such as this are all largely or entirely composed of personal preferences. On Philbin’s list, I have only one thing to point out: He included a lot of the specifics and mostly technological stuff, which have undoubtedly made life easier. But how is a microwave oven any better without the plate, or a spoon and fork, or that thing that’s used to get freshly heated stuff out of the microwave itself? In the process of going through his list, it feels as if Philbin somehow forgot to include the basics – clothes, for instance. Maybe shirts and pants are not specific nor technological enough to qualify?

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