TED Time: The intention of invention

Editor’s note: Here’s an attempt at RM 2.0’s first feature — taking a video from TED and digging into its intellectual juices.

The storyteller: Malcolm Gladwell’s reputation is solid. Behind his work at The New Yorker, but more so from his bestselling books, The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, Gladwell (regardless of his views) holds the title of America’s best storyteller. Spaghetti sauce, crime in New York City, hush puppies, Rosetans, the 10,000-hour rule and on and on and on. Some of these subjects are fascinating just by themselves. I mean, how many crime shows are there on television? But to get thousands of people to read richly into the subject of developing different kinds of spaghetti sauce, is, well, really some kind of gift.


Synposis: So, here we have Gladwell telling another story. It’s the story of Carl Norden, a Swiss immigrant, an American engineer, devote Christian and the inventor of the Norden bombsight. Gladwell takes us back to World War II, to a United States about to enter into an international conflict with memories of the first World War still vivid. Specifically, memories of over 100,000 American casualties. America’s looking into how to end wars more quickly, with fewer American deaths. To do that, it assumes it must get better at killing. What better way to demoralize the enemy, and thus expedite their surrender. And the method of killing America wants to improve at the most is dropping bombs.

Enter Norden. His invention — the Norden Mark 15, a 50-pound machine of gauges and gizmos — is designed to drop bombs on targets with miraculous accuracy. All a bombardier must do is log wind speed, flying speed, altitude, etc., etc., set the Norden Mark 15’s cross-hairs on the target, and let it go. BOOM! Mission accomplished. America buys in, purchases 90,000 units at a cost of $14,000 (in 1940s money), trains 50,000 bombardiers, and sets out for Europe and the German army. The U.S. ends up spending $1 billion on the Norden bombsight.

But, when the U.S.’s planes get over to Europe, there’s a problem: The Norden Mark 15 doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for five reasons — 1) War conditions aren’t perfect; 2) this machine tends to break down a lot in the middle of missions; 3) it’s a really complicated machine to operate, and not all 50,000 bombardiers are proficient with it; 4) Norden made his calculations at low altitudes, but planes flying at low altitudes get shot down; and 5) the higher you fly (to avoid enemy contact), the more clouds there are, and thus the harder it is to make visual contact with a target, which is vital in operating the Norden Mark 15.

Moral of the story: Gladwell adds at the end of his story a footnote — that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was dropped using the Norden Mark 15. Of course, the bombsight didn’t work; the bomb missed the target by some 800 feet. But, really, you’re dropping an atomic bomb. How precise did you need to be?

But here is Gladwell’s point:

“Meanwhile, back in New York, no one told Carl Norden that his bombsight was used over Hiroshima. He was a committed Christian. He thought he had designed something that would reduce the toll of suffering in war. It would have broken his heart.”

The story is about war, Gladwell says. It’s about much more than that. Here he is again:

“We think the things we make can solve our problems, but our problems are much more complex than that. The issue isn’t the accuracy of the bombs you have, it’s how you use the bombs you have, and more importantly, whether you ought to use bombs at all.”

Perspective: Gladwell chose a politically-, ethically- and morally-charged example (war) to convey his idea, and, judging by the viewers’ comments, that can make it hard to separate the story from the lesson. On face value, Gladwell might be a pacifist, leaving me to wonder if he sees any use/need for a military, a mechanism used by mankind in some form (stones, sticks, knives, spears, chariots, guns, tanks, etc.) since, well, forever.

But his larger point is spot on, and one commenter on his video put it beautifully:

“This is the story of humankind and the paradox of our lifestyle … And Malcolm’s conclusion is simply that we need to change our patterns of thinking, not invent better ‘things.'”

I love better things. I love this computer I’m typing on right now to write this post, much better than I would sharpening my pencil for the fifth time. But the computer doesn’t, by itself, enhance my life. The way I choose to use it can enhance my life — by reading insightful writing to broaden my knowledge, or watching hilarious videos to lift my spirits, or sending pictures of my little boy to his relatives miles away, by which I’m (hopefully) enhancing several lives.

There’s been a movement out there for awhile now on minimalistic living, of living with less, and it’s a really noble and hard thing to do in this time of history. A person living with less isn’t normal. Ostensibly, because they don’t participate as a full American consumer, that person doesn’t help people get jobs. That might be a stretch, but if it were true, that person would make a lot of enemies. A lot of people are out of work these days.

But, that person living with less should get them back to the basics, back to relationships, back to nature, and perhaps back to better understanding and knowing themselves. A computer could help them do that. But only if they know how to use it. Or maybe they don’t need a computer at all?

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