come_to_think (come_to_think) wrote,

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Bless America

The other day, at Harvard, as part of a celebration of MIT's somethingth birthday, a person who had been working in Africa gave a 5-min lecture entitled "How to Make a Million".  I was supposed to misunderstand that, but I failed the test, because at Caltech I had taken a short course in mechanical engineering in which some of the problems took the form of a drawing with the questions "How would you make one of these? A hundred? A million?".  That was the idea.  She had happened on the design of a hand-propelled ring that would swiftly strip the kernels off a corncob, and instead of setting up a factory to make a million of them, she undertook to enable a million people to make one each.  She gave some people the idea, and pretty soon they were building schools with thatched roofs to propagate it.  But not just the idea of the device -- the idea that people needed no permission to improve the device and the processes of making it, which they did pretty fast.

In doing that, however, she was planting the seeds of an alien culture, which was essentially North Atlantic and quintessentially American.  The idea that you were allowed to think you had a better way to do a traditional thing used to be called "Yankee ingenuity" & was commended to me under that name in my childhood.  It is in some ways contrary to human nature, and it took a long time to start, but once it started it was bound to spread.  In Yankeeland it still flourishes, most particularly in the free-software movement.

And, come to think, the corn they were processing was also an import due to American --- tho not Yankee --- ingenuity: a product of long-forgotten plant breeders who turned the wild teosinte into something you could get your teeth into, and in the process made it dependent on us for reproduction.

Of course, in the rich countries we all buy factory products, and are tempted to use them without modification, tho that requires some adjustment of ourselves.  But in that respect I am as ornery a Yankee as those newly corrupted Africans.  I just finished sewing some extra Velcro on a shell I had worn for many years, the behavior of whose hood had been annoying me.  A good many of the things around me I have spent more time modifying than I spent making the money to buy them.

To those who are good at such things, I commend a similar tinkering spirit in the redesign of social interactions.  B. F. Skinner was a poor philosopher of science, but in Walden Two & Cumulative Record he showed the right attitude.
Tags: america, economics, engineering
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