Someone, maybe an ancestor of the man who said that no home needed a computer, that the internet is a flash in the pan, or that television will fail for the same reason the telegraph will, once thought electricity was a stupid idea.
For every great discovery and every amazing invention, there are those who cannot see the damned point. For them, indoor plumbing was clearly irrelevant. No-one would ever need to fly — which by the way was unlikely ever to be possible. Penicillin? Hogwash. And if they or anyone else needed a camera, they should hire a damned photographer.
There’s something about obvious facts, clear benefits, unassailable truths that leads some people to disagree with them, or at least to refuse to accept them. For any and every proven, demonstrably irrefutable fact you can think of, there will be someone who — thanks these days to the flash in the pan internet — is ready, able and more than willing to share their disagreement.
Sometimes it’s a simple mistake, or admitted shortness of sight. We’re happy enough to admit error. “Well I’ll be damned, I never thought Facebook would catch on,” you might hear. Or “You know I still say those mushrooms are safe to eat, yet here I am in the emergency room.”
To avoid those errors we may turn for advice to experts, visionaries, or pundits. Not necessarily to provide us with new information, but more often than not to reinforce our prejudice and even share the blame if, for some reason we can hardly believe, we turn out to be mistaken.
Evidence of our mistakes can also be refused or deflected. I still say my dog doesn’t bite, you just provoked him. Facebook never did catch on in its original form — now it’s something entirely different. Mobile phones may have turned out to be successful, but I still say they’ll kill us all.
Nevertheless, we tend to hang on to our long-held points of view way past the point at which they became obviously wrong, stupid, or even dangerous. As evidence mounts, we may dig in and prepare for the siege.
Everybody has their “no home needs a computer” moment. Maybe it was when you thought CDs were here to stay and invested your entire music collection in them. Perhaps you were sure Betamax would put Hollywood out of business. Those shoes would be the last you ever bought. America has the best healthcare system in the world — that sort of thing.
But for many of us it takes a certain amount of effort and humility to accept that in our longterm certainty we were, all along, mistaken. Much of what we thought and said and argued was wrong, was a waste of time, and would need to be thrown out. It takes experience and effort to come to terms with the fact that evidence or events have overtaken us, life has in some fundamental way corrected us, and we are now prepared to bite the bullet and adopt a new point of view.
Benjamin Franklin saw this. He faced the prospect that he may have been wrong about electricity. But in being wrong, and recognizing it, though he may never develop an electric light he may nevertheless achieve a little self-enlightenment:
In going on with these Experiments, how many pretty systems do we build, which we soon find ourselves oblig’d to destroy! If there is no other Use discover’d of Electricity, this, however, is something considerable, that it may help to make a vain Man humble.
Though some 200 years later Carl Sagan pointed out how rare this sort of self-enlightenment can be, especially among those in whom it would be most beneficial for the rest of us.
In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
So here’s my Ben Franklin moment: I strongly believe the self-driving car will be a complete disaster, not because it won’t work but because people won’t use it.
And I’m fully prepared to admit I am wrong and embrace enlightenment when, some 20 years hence, I order my self-driving car for a trip into town.