Ways of seeing: Will inventions stand the test of time?

I sometimes have a lot of time to think while I’m at work. When you spend seven or eight hours scraping paint, your mind is free to wander, and lately my mind has journeyed from the lead in the paint I was scraping to other inventions that, like lead in paint, turned out to be bad ideas.

Lead paint was used for centuries. At some point someone experimented and put lead in paint and found it helped paint dry faster, stay on longer, and kept it from fading. What a great innovation — the lead made the paint work better! It wasn’t until the early 20th century that people discovered the lead in paint could be bad for you, and it wasn’t banned in the United States until 1978.

The first latex paints were terrible, and while they have greatly improved over time, compared to lead paint they still seem to fall short. Have you noticed there is still lead paint on so many houses even if they have been scraped many times? The lead paint has stayed on, while the many layers of latex paint on top of it have failed. Even after we discovered the negative effects of lead and banned lead paint, we are still dealing with it today.

There are many other examples of inventions that have since been found to be harmful — asbestos, DDT, and the one of most recent concern in schools, PCBs. We are left dealing with their negative impacts long after the products themselves have been banned.

Other inventions are less clear-cut and have both positives and negatives. Imagine the excitement of scientists discovering nuclear fission. A renewable clean source that could power the world! Unfortunately that didn’t turn out to be the case, and nuclear energy has become mired in controversy over nuclear waste and weapons.

Think about plastic! What an amazing invention — strong, flexible, durable, and can be used for so many different things! But once again, we have come to realize that these very traits make most plastic unrecyclable and when it slowly degrades it is bad for the environment.

Some inventions have more hidden negatives. When cell phones were first invented they were this amazing technology that unbound phone calls from a fixed place. Slowly our cell phones have turned into tiny computers keeping us connected and online constantly. This has led to many studies on the negative effect of phones and our non-stop online presence. There are even new inventions to try and limit usage and keep kids safer on their phones — inventions to mitigate the bad effects of other inventions.

So while I am perched on a ladder for hours, I wonder. How many new inventions will stand the test of time? How many of them will turn out in the end to do more harm than good? How many of the inventions we have embraced are actually beneficial for us? In terms of our physical and mental health it seems like so many of our modern inventions are actually detrimental.

One wonders, would it not be healthier to perhaps do without many of them? You would grow your own organic food and not have to worry about high fructose corn syrup hiding in everything. If you did physical work rather than sit behind a computer you wouldn’t have to worry about a fitness app to track your steps. Without the internet you wouldn’t have to worry about bullying online or cyber theft.

If there were a way to measure the complete wellbeing of people how would we rate compared to someone living without all our modern inventions?

Claire Corkins grew up and lives in Bristol and studied Human Ecology at College of the Atlantic in Maine. After college she worked abroad teaching English as a second language. She currently works with her father in such various endeavors as painting houses, tiling bathrooms, building porches, and fixing old windows. She hikes, reads, plays ice hockey, travels, and wishes she could wear flip flops all year round.

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