Friday, November 18, 2005
BY DANIEL B. KLINE
Science and medicine have failed us. We have no flying cars. Our homes remain largely unautomated and the only widely used robots barely do a passable job vacuuming our floors. The curing of diseases pretty much stopped with polio and we're still afflicted by the common cold. Don't forget that the flu, which used to be a coughing and sneezing filled annoyance, now travels in birds and can kill you.
Technological advances seemingly stopped in the early 1990s when the Internet and the cell phone began revolutionizing how we communicate. Today, inventors seem happy to take existing things and make them a little better and a little smaller. First we had the Walkman, then it was the iPod and soon it will be an iPod the size of a Cheerio.
Forget having a Jetsons-style existence where your kitchen table does the dishes for you, we're still stuck pre-washing our plates because the dishwasher pretty much just wets and warms them. Our personal hygiene efforts haven't improved much either as thousands of inventors have yet to come up with a better way to shave than adding more blades to our razors. We don't have a pill or a cream that stops your facial from growing, but we'll soon have a Bic with 17 blades.
Things aren't much better in the field of medicine, which has either stopped pursuing or lost the ability to accomplish much of anything. Basically, every recent advancement involves making some terrible disease vaguely less awful for some people. The doctors of old eliminated malaria, smallpox, polio, whooping cough and a host of other maladies while today's docs spend billions chipping away at the edges of the problem.
Take AIDS, a horrible scourge that has killed hundreds of thousands worldwide. Despite billions of dollars spent and the support of our most popular entertainers, science has done little more than slow it down.
We can't cure or prevent the disease, but by taking an incredibly elaborate - and wildly expensive - cocktail of drugs, some people live with the disease a while longer. Of course, this approach may have created a super strain of the virus that we wouldn't be able to do anything about, but we should be happy for Magic Johnson.
Perhaps this has happened because our best minds no longer work on the big issues. Why would a scientist slave away trying to cure cancer when he could get rich creating a cream that makes middle-aged fat women appear to have slightly less cellulite on their backsides? Why end AIDS when slowing down wrinkles pays so much better?
Maybe our brightest people have not gone into science or medicine at all because the glory of these professions has diminished greatly. People know that Jonas Salk cured polio and Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, but today's innovators receive no such glory.
Other than Ron Popeil, inventor of both "hair in a can" and the Showtime Rotisserie Grill, America has no well-known inventors. As for science, we've got Bill Nye, but educating kids on PBS hardly makes you a candidate for the Nobel Prize.
Reversing this trend seems nearly impossible. It's unlikely that the guy who cures the bird flu will end up on the cover of People and equally unlikely that the woman who creates the first practical hover car would end up dating Brad Pitt.
Big business has no real interest in curing anything or creating any radical technology. When you eliminate a disease, you get a one-time payday - the real money is in selling people something that they have to take forever.
The same holds true in a different way with technology. It's too risky for General Motors to invent something radically new. Creating solar-powered hover pods comes with too much risk. It's a lot safer to take the cars we currently have and add heated seats or some other non-revolutionary gizmos.
Of course, you can't fault business for putting its research and development dollars into the areas most likely to make them money. You have to blame the scientists and doctors who have traded the intellectual pursuit of grand ideas for the callous pursuit of money.
Daniel B. Kline is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. His book "50 Things Every Guy Should Know How to Do" will be released in April and his blog can be viewed at www.thingseveryguy.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.