Inventions and Innovations: A Brief History of Infatuation, Overpromise, and Disappointment
by Vaclav Smil
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Release Date: February 14, 2023
This book is about technological failures, the various ways in which technologies fail, and what lessons can be learned from these failures when hearing about new “world-changing breakthroughs.” The author explores nine technologies in depth, three for each of three varieties of technology failure.
The first group are those technologies that came online as promised, fixing a major problem, only to later be discovered to have side-effects deemed disastrous. The examples used are: leaded gasoline, DDT pesticide, and CFC (Chlorofluorocarbon) refrigerant. These technologies have come to be associated with health defects, air pollution, ecological collapse, and ozone depletion.
The second group (like the first) came online, but then never became competitive with existing technologies. The technologies presented as examples are: airships, nuclear fission for power production, and supersonic flight. Airships died out not only because of the Hindenburg disaster, but also because people preferred airplanes to a craft with the combined slowness of a boat and the crash potential of a plane. Nuclear fission became untenable for new commercial power plants due to a risk premium on build costs even though it doesn’t contribute to global warming and (once powerplants are paid for) is exceedingly cheap per kilowatt-hour. Supersonic flight was just too costly and short-ranged to compete with subsonic flight.
The final group are those technologies that failed to come online at all, despite intense efforts. These include travel by vacuum tube (i.e. Hyperloop, and, yes, like at the bank but with people inside) nitrogen-fixing grains (negating the need for fertilizer,) and nuclear fusion. Despite the celebrity billionaire love of Elon Musk and Richard Branson, hyperloop isn’t advancing because of challenges of maintaining vacuum over large distances. Making cereal grains that feature the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes has also proven more difficult than expected. Nuclear fusion recently experienced a moment in the sun when, for the first time, they got more energy out of it than was needed to achieve it. (This wasn’t written about in the review copy I read, but I suspect will be mentioned in the finished book. At any rate, it doesn’t negate the author’s point as it’s still just one breakthrough of several that would be needed for the technology to be commercially viable.)
In the last chapter, the author gets into a number of other technologies with shorter discussions that are meant to illustrate specific issues with excessive technological optimism. He also investigates some technologies that he believes need to come down the pike, given our present and expected future challenges.
I found this book fascinating. The author seems to love being contrarian (he not only contests popular optimism by those overestimating technological progress but also contests the pessimism regarding the first group of failed technologies, so it appears that he enjoys pointing out how mass opinion [or the opinion of another smart person] is wrong.) That said, there’s a great deal of thought-provoking information in the book. And, I think it can help people more critically consider claims about up-and-coming technologies.
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