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What is the most important invention ever?

Live Science offer up their top 10 inventions that changed the world, though no clear criteria for why these 10 and not others are the top. Other sites do the same, with varying degrees of overlap, but similarly opaque criteria.  Another genus of listicle looks forward, anticipating what the most disruptive new technologieswill be (or the BBC’s more engaging site). But again without much rigor. I’ve written about this in other posts too.

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog has just picked up on an older piece of economics research that has been recently highlighted by Our World In Data, and proclaimed that “the most disruptive technology of the last century is in your house”.

The original research comes from Greenwood et al (2005) in the Review of Economic Studies. They looked at the speed of uptake of domestic appliances, and the effect that had on women joining the paid labour force in the US. At least they have some clear criteria and evidence to offer.

But still, the conclusion only applies to some countries. The fridge, by itself, hasn’t emancipated women world wide. And the example illustrates the limitations of such a narrow (and often technological) analysis. A variety of factors influence the impact particular inventions or developments have. Rapidly growing post-war economies, the growing use of contraception, increasing participation of women in higher education, and other things would also have contributed to rising numbers of women in paid employment.

It is also useful to note that the first refrigerator for home use was invented in 1913, so the impacts Greenwood et al. write about began to appear nearly half a century later. These often long lag times to achieve widespread adoption and impact can be overlooked in the sometimes breathless commentary on new technologies.

Attempting to identify the most significant inventions of all (or any) time also highlights the narrow view we often have of events. We want to identify single things or people who shaped our history (for better or worse), when often it is a complex system of events and contexts. That makes it harder to be more definitive, but it is essential to recognise this if we want to better understand and improve the complex world we are already in.

The most important “invention” for our future may be to think and plan in terms of systems rather than components.

One of my favourite “high impact” inventions in recent times is the shipping container. The effect of introducing a standardised container to transport all manner of goods has been profound, as wonderfully illustrated in Marc Levinson’s wonderful book “The Box“. Most importantly he describes the range of other factors that contributed to the eventual success of the cargo container. If you don’t get the chance to read it, this short video from Vox touches on a few of the consequences.

It is easier in hindsight to see the impact of a new development, and attribute particular factors to it but hard to project what future consequences will be. Not that it doesn’t stop plenty of pundits doing so. There’s nothing wrong with that, since it can stimulate critical reflection. So long as you take their prognostications with a good dose of salt, and ask what their world view is and what assumptions are being made.

This article originally appeared on Sciblogs.

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