Canadian Plastics

Next millennium, best millennium

This boldly asinine statement was made in 1899 by the director of the U.S. Patent Office, one Charles Duell.Undoubtedly, Duell was no fool. As an overseer of an office of inventions, he was as familia...

December 1, 1999   By Michael LeGault, editor



This boldly asinine statement was made in 1899 by the director of the U.S. Patent Office, one Charles Duell.

Undoubtedly, Duell was no fool. As an overseer of an office of inventions, he was as familiar as anyone with the human talent for creating and innovating. If one considers his words carefully, it is not clear that he actually thinks that humans had run out of inventions. Rather, it seems, a curmudgeonly Duell felt that society did not really have a need or desire for any more inventions. The difference is subtle, but important. Duell’s hugely erroneous prediction was not a result of flawed reasoning or imagination so much as it was a flawed belief: He didn’t seem to appreciate the almost instinctive drive people have to tangibly improve their lives and the role technology plays in helping to achieve this.

If Duell did feel this way it is somewhat understandable. Today we accept the principle of 100 tries to get one good idea or invention. In Duell’s time, given the limitations of the practical sciences at the time, this ratio of failure to success was no doubt much higher, perhaps 1000 to 1. Material progress to someone like Duell must have seemed incremental and largely a pipe dream.

One hundred years ago, in a still largely rural and agricultural-based society, there was also a wider distrust and fear of technology. Many people felt that every gain brought by an invention was offset by a cost; that the net effect of technology was to enslave, degrade and put people out of work.

One hundred years later, in a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, freedom and political stability, enjoyed by more people than ever, in great measure because of technology, this fear has been shown to be largely without basis.

Advances in the medical sciences continues to eradicate disease and increase the life span and quality of health of people around the world. The computer and Internet, used as a means for many people to share information with many others, makes the grim business of dictatorship and suppressing human knowledge and ambition more difficult than ever. Technology-enhanced productivity improvements in agriculture and food distribution mean a smaller and smaller proportion of the world’s population goes hungry. And these days people are more likely to complain about an excess of work, rather than a lack of it. Plastics has played an integral, indispensable part in all of these trends and innovations.

Technology has never been child’s play. It needs a framework of democratic law and minimally intrusive regulation to function properly. It is not, like anything worthwhile in life, risk free.

In this sense, as people involved in the use of technology to make things that improve the quality of people’s lives, you, our readers, have an important role to play in helping the public evaluate and understand those risks. You’ve heard the “get involved” speech , so let me put it to you this way–as we head into the next century the division between private business person and public citizen is rapidly disappearing. Quite literally what you do or don’t do in the public arena today can affect your company’s profits next quarter.

The challenge before us is to help the public distinguish between irrational fears and legitimate concerns, as well as to accept progress as a fundamental and highly moral core human value. We’re a long way from utopia but it seems at the millennium’s end we may have turned the corner. The best solution for the fanaticism, fear, prejudice and grinding poverty that has tainted so much of this century has turned out to be nothing more complicated than freedom. Freedom of ideas, freedom of choices, freedom of people to interact, create and trade, freedom to fail, freedom to try again. This unleashed freedom acting on untapped human potential is cause for great optimism heading into the new millennium. There will be bumps in the road. We will need to stand on guard for freedom.

e-mail: mlegault@southam.ca


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