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Where has the wonder of innovation gone?

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Recently, a wonderful elderly lady, whom I had known for 25 years, passed away in Australia at the age of 97. I last saw Mrs K, as I’ll call her, a few months ago and she was still fairly lucid with a long memory. We had a great chat about her early life (she was born in the year the Titanic sank). Often she would talk about major events and newsmakers of the 20th century, and I was always fascinated at hearing her memories. I was amused at how she recalled reading Wyatt Earp’s obituary in the newspaper in 1929, Al Capone’s arrest, the death of the last US Civil War veteran, and stories like that.

Most elderly people have so many wonderful stories to tell, if we take the time to sit down and listen to them. For me, Mrs K’s reminiscences were most entertaining and thought-provoking when she started talking about the technical achievements and inventions that changed the lives of everyone on the planet on a scale that we can’t even imagine today, and how people reacted to them when they first came out.

Electricity, the automobile, plumbing, plane travel, the telephone, television –- Mrs K was alive at the birth or commercialization of all these inventions. She joked about how her husband -- upon seeing a TV set for the first time -- wanted to take the box apart to see what was inside. Telephones were another device that excited everyone, she said. The idea of dialing (yes, dialing) a number and being able to speak to someone in another part of the world astonished people. When Mrs K received her first phone call, she thought someone must have been in the next room playing a trick on her.

It was one invention after another, each one revolutionizing our lifestyles. Even humble appliances such as the refrigerator and toilet made a big difference, not to mention running water coming out of tap inside the house. And what about air conditioners? Having endured another hot summer in Japan, I can’t help but give a silent nod of thanks to whoever invented it.

As I chatted with this dear lady, it occurred to me that nothing has really been invented in my generation that has had the same wondrous effect on all our lives. Or perhaps I have just become jaded and take technical advances for granted. I know, someone will say the Internet, but I don’t think that the Internet has had anywhere near the influence on our lives as earlier inventions did. I think of the Internet as a means of employment, a method of communication, research, entertainment and shopping, but it has not shaped or defined my life. In fact, many times over the past few years, I have gone several days without using the Internet. For my mother’s and grandmother’s generation, things like the Internet and computers are of little use -- if they use them at all.

Not counting medical technology, I can only think of one technical achievement in the past 20 years that has held me in the same sort of awe as Mrs K must have felt in her younger days -- and I am only speaking for myself here. That was in July 1997 when the Mars Pathfinder started sending pictures back from the surface of the Red Planet. I was glued to the TV. I couldn’t believe I was actually seeing images from another planet.

I miss that sense of wonder. I want to be awed again. Each week in Japan, I read about some new device -- iPads, iPhones, 3D TVs, digital cameras or whatever, but none of those impress me. I don't look at an iPad or smartphone and say to myself, "That's amazing. How does it work?" But I do continue to marvel at older inventions that we have long taken for granted. When I am sitting in a plane, I always wonder how it manages to take off. How does a camera take photos? How does a fax work? Even the telephone (landlines) still amazes me. Yeah, it is something to do with my voice being converted into electrical signals but I don’t understand it. If I did, it might lose its mystique.

When I am 97, I wonder if I’ll be able to tell young people about some device that was invented in the 2010s and how it changed our lives forever. What will it be?

The writer is the editor of Japan Today.

© Japan Today

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30 Comments
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yES !!! I'm still waiting for the leviatating car !!!!! Or the automobile running on garbage (orange & banana peels eggs and water) like the automobile from " Back To The Future "

Star Trek- thinking of an item and sudddenly pot roast appears in the "materializer"

Laser Guns ???

0 ( +0 / -0 )

whiskey - That's "replicator."

""When I am 97, I wonder if I'll be able to tell young people about some device that was invented in the 2010s and how it changed our lives forever"

Microsoft's Kinect system for Xbox 360! ( see picture of the day )

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"I think of the Internet as a means of employment, a method of communication, research, entertainment and shopping, but it has not shaped or defined my life." Not a well thought out comment.

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The invention that will truly impress me is the time machine. When will this come?? Or as some reports suggest, at Area51, they already have a working time machine. Now this really will change everything. Not least, the end of all forms of gambling!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Well we will always have the wonders of nature to marvel at - far more amazing than anything man can dream up.

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Being born less than 40 years ago, I still remember greatly the excitement when actually writing a letter, sending it by post and waiting for 2 - 3 weeks for an answer from my loved ones far away. I still keep a lot of those letters and I am sure this is one thing I will show my grand children in the future. I think the internet has shaped AND defined our lives much more than we want to realize and admit. Especially as an editor of a online newspaper I'm surprised that you, Chris, are not more aware of it.

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I would rate the Internet on par with the automobile as far as being transformative, and not in good ways many times. Also the cell phone is pretty amazing.

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Instead of innovation and invention, how about the disitegration of certain things that will lead to enlightenment...like the end of organized religion, money, cancer, fossil fuels...

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disintegration..sorry

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A wise Arab said, his grandfather traveled by camel, he travels by car, and his grandson will travel by camel. I think they understand that the luxury of our recent inventions are simply unsustainable. I wouldn't be surprised if the main means of travel in 100 years is bicycle myself. Probably the best mode of transportation man ever invented.

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@ronaldk i like the elevator and escalator. My prefered mode of travel.

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I suppose the author is getting at how unbelievable some technology is, and how we lack that wonder, more than how transformative any given article has been. And that's true - we don't really ask questions as much these days about strange new technologies, we just say 'huh, it does that? That's great!' . And I would argue that the internet did have that wonder for a little while. As a kid, growing up with computers, I couldn't get my head around the idea of data travelling over phone lines as fast as it does. I couldn't understand how that volume would be possible. But now I don't really think about it. It was a wondrous moment for me, but only because I knew enough about computers.

As a wise person once joked, 'sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' ... I guess celphones slip into that category; these days a star-trek badge phone is totally believeable...

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I think the author is right. The innovations he mentions are things that have truly and fundamentally changed people's lives. Yes, maybe the internet has done that too but still to a less fundamental degree than say, tap water, the refrigerator or radio. We're talking technologies that enable entire societies to take an evolutionary leap forward in life quality.

Sorry, but with about 15% of Internet consisting of porn and another 83% of non-fact-checked junk, I don't think the Internet qualifies. Quite the opposite in many cases. And mobile phones—well yes they are convenient, but I wouldn't say that they are necessary for a quality life. Again, in many ways, they actually diminish people's quality of life.

The Mars Pathfinder, on the other hand, that's awe-inspiring, mind-expanding innovation.

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I think the most likely cause of someone not being impressed with technology today is that they never experience living as an adult without that technology.

Age is a factor. Technological advancements tend to build on one another. The change seen in 97 years would be exponentially greater than the change seen in the years the author has been alive.

Also, if you want to be impressed with innovation, I think you'll need to look beyond the weekly flow of new gadgets from Japan. For example, to date, scientists have confirmed detecting 490 planets outside of our solar system. People are moving computer cursors using only their mind and a device placed on their head. Some of the videos at ted.com will impress you, I think.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think what the writer is about is Invention vs evolutions of those inventions.

Edison perfected the existing lightbulbs, modern day LED bulbs are an evolution of that.

Same with traditional phones going to cel-phones they took an old technology and merged it with a new one.

Internet is not so much a factor as the computers that drive it, as computers and communication technology evolved the Net,etc was the logical next step.

In short the basics and paradigms haven't changed only the implementations of them.

My view anyway.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Some predict that this century will be known as the Century of the Mind. Advances in technology deepening our understanding of how the mind works will drive innovation in areas from elimination of psychosis to actualization of telekinetics. The ultimate goal would be the ability to actually create a functioning brain from scratch. Such research is progressing rapidly and the results will make all those innovations of the 20th C. look nothing more than Tamagochi.

Oh, and 3D porn. That'll be cool, too.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The author is not impressed by changes that are happening constantly, only those that happen suddenly.

Humans know better what they want to do and have taken the first steps with many technologies, but improving them and making them more efficient will allow us to adapt them to new applications. The ion drive, nanotechnology, LEDs and superconduction are not new, but they will incresingly change our lives in the years to come.

I am glad that I live right now. Almost every new invention improves someone's life quickly and safely.

But thanks to all the pioneer cavemen in their basements for dreaming the dream.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Well we will always have the wonders of nature to marvel at - far more amazing than anything man can dream up.

Nature never ceases to amaze me. Watch a few nature programs on YouTube (like BBC ones) and you'll be blown away.

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If the internet isn't that important to you, I'll happily take your job.

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I just have to say that I am behind the times with an Ipod Touch, not an Iphone, and I think it's absolutely amazing to have the Internet, movies, ipod university, etc. available in such a small device. I remember when computers had keypunch cards, and the clunky monitors with green displays.

This is a well-written, thoughtful article, but maybe the author is just overwhelmed by all the change. Digital cameras, compact cell phones, the Shinkansen and now mag-lev trains and all the rest ARE amazing. Step back a bit... check out some of the latest things the futurists are talking about ... the wonder of innovation is not gone.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There are a lot of people comparing the last 60 years to 60 years before it, and it is true there has been lees invention and more emphasis on reinvention.

So what?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A few things spring to mind:

Manned space travel is only 50-year-old technology. Not to mention all the related technologies that grew out of the American and Soviet space programs.

Along with the internet and high connection speeds, display and storage technology have revolutionized the way we work with computers.

And don't forget GPS, which still boggles my mind.

And finally cell phones. We are never out of touch. And they have more computing power than the IBM mainframe I worked on back in the '70s

I don't think we've lost our sense of wonder, not when we're faced with something that's truly revolutionary. But when these things are introduced at prices so affordable that anyone can buy them, we don't get the opportunity to admire them from afar. And, yes, we see so much innovation all the time, we become numb to it. For the most part.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Personal (home) computers...basically 35 only years old.

I often find it strange to meet people only 5 years younger than I who never got to experience the heady days when the first home computers started to hit the market in about 1977.

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nuclear powered cars? Imagine the horse power!!! Nuclear-charged Dodge Charger!! and what about robots? and time machines? hover boards? instant cloning? According to 20 years ago, we've should of invented these things by now, someone's gotta pick up the slack!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A more appropriate title is "Where Has MY Wonder At innovation gone?"

Plenty of people appreciate plenty of things in this world. Just because you don't, or can't seem to find anything to wonder at, Mr. JT Editor, doesn't mean others don't, or can't.

The biggest things that many take for granted are advanced medicines, and medical procedures.

The Human Genome has been mapped, opening up a whole new world of disease detection and prevention.

The efficiency of land use (in terms of food production) continues to increase due to continually advancing plant and fertilizer technology.

People can get movable prosthetic limbs.

Nuclear energy is commonplace.

MRI's have only been around 40 years or so, but they give doctors an incredibly in depth picture of your insides, completely non-invasively.

Stem cell research may lead to spine cell regeneration, reversing heart disease, giving back sight to the blind.

Look around, Mr. JT Editor, there's plenty of wonder right under your nose.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Im personally waiting for a Tardis to be invented

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Aaah, the Tardis. When I think of that, I jump from place to place.

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Who wants a smeging Tardis, give us the "Dokodemo" door. :D

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Well, as a 50-year-old, I still find most new technologies interesting but I fail to see the necessity of owning iPods, iPads, iPhones, or any gaming system in any shape or form, they all bore the pants off me. Give me a book any day.

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New inventions, or improvements on old ones, are so common now that there's a sort of "mental overload" at work and the sense of wonder or awe no longer functions.

Yes, something IS lost because of that ... however we DO gain mass quantities of neat-o, and occasionally useful, new inventions by way of compensation.

But I still leave the battery out of my cell phone unless I actually need to call someone, in case of emergency. So many new inventions are about "connectivity" ... but I think being "over-connected" has many serious downsides. At this rate we'll be "Borg" in just a generation or so.

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