Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Great inventions

Americans often praise a new invention by saying it's "the best thing since sliced bread". This has always intrigued me, since I've never really thought of sliced bread as a great invention. In France, nobody would dream of buying a sliced baguette. How would you carry such a limp object on the back of your bike?

The computer scientist John McCarthy (inventor of the Lisp language) surprised me back in the early '70s by affirming that the invention that had made the greatest impact upon society was, not the computer (which had been around for a couple of decades), but the photocopier. McCarthy argued that, if computers were to be suddenly eliminated by a magic wand, many people would hardly notice that these big boxes full of electronics (I repeat: he said this during the early '70s) were no longer there. On the other hand, if secretaries could no longer make photocopies, that would be the end of business, industry and research. Today, the wheel has turned in the sense that, most often, I use my computer's scanner and printer to copy documents.

We learned of the death, a few days ago, of the 93-year-old man behind one of the greatest inventions of the second half of the 20th century: the remote control device. In 1956, Robert Adler created such a gadget based upon ultrasonics. Today, as in countless homes across the planet, I have half-a-dozen different kinds of remote control devices lying around the house, and it's becoming more and more difficult to use them intuitively, since there's no such thing as standardization in this domain. Meanwhile, every family has its private jokes about an old-fashioned relative trying to change TV channels with a portable telephone, or make a phone call with a zapper. Here at Gamone, my dog Sophia doesn't even need to wait around for visits from my relatives to observe comparable cases of such confusion.

My favorite remote control gadget is the elegant and simple device included with all new Macintosh computers. I got a first one with my iMac, and another with my MacBook. I get a kick out of playing with the device for a few minutes from time to time, because its effects are really nice to watch. If I were perfectly truthful, though, I would have to admit that I don't make any serious use of this device on the Macintosh. I'm not keen to operate my computer in a remote style. On the contrary, I try to develop a closer and closer contact with my computer, so that the virtual distance between us (a new concept I just invented) is minimal.

When I think about, as an invention, the Macintosh remote control device is a little like sliced bread. It's nice to know that such a thing exists, and I admire the imagination of the inventor. But it's not exactly an invention that excites me personally.

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