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Wonders at the Threshold

  • Date: 05/04/2012
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • We place on all graduates an expectation that they will, in some way, contribute to the greater good of society wherever they choose to make their homes. But for truly transformative gains, we look with confidence to you, the men and women of engineering and business.

    Why?

    Because as W. Brian Arthur wrote, “Most of us do not stop to ponder technology. It is something we find useful but that fades to the background of our world.  Yet (technology) also creates that world. It creates our wealth, our economy, our very way of being.”[1]

    O.B. Hardison Jr. wrote that "If an innovation is basic…a generation after it has been introduced, it becomes part of the world as given."[2] He goes on to say that this lack of consciousness of the familiar actually changes our culture - making those earlier innovations "transparent to thought," rather than part of our daily considerations.[3] And that is why he titled his book, “Disappearing Through the Skylight.”

    After all, when do we truly appreciate the importance of electricity, refrigeration or wireless communication in our lives? Only when they are missing. Likewise, complex technologies need not be understood to be transparently easy to use. Think for example of a telephone, or a television, or the steering system in your car.

    It is through technology and its commercialization that standards of living rise; that doctors, nurses and other health care professionals extend and save more lives; that schools and universities educate more students; that artists broadly share their gifts of talent and creativity. Indeed, the future has always been predicted by the technologies that invented it.

    Arthur goes on to write that “Technology is what separates us from the Middle Ages; indeed, it is what separates us from the way we lived 50,000 years ago.”[4]

    The history of mankind is a history of invention and commerce, and as Americans, we should take some pride in the contributions our own country has made in these areas. Our countrymen invented the light bulb, the airplane, the credit card, the integrated circuit and the Internet. We did not invent the internal combustion engine, the automobile or penicillin, but we perfected and commercialized them with world-changing results.

    Of course, we dare not sit on our laurels and admire our genius of years past. The global economy demands of each nation, “what have you done for us lately,” and the “lately” is becoming an increasingly compressed measure of time.

    The President of the United States said, “Our future progress and prosperity depend upon our ability to equal, if not surpass, other nations in the enlargement and advance of science, industry and commerce. To invention we must turn as one of the most powerful aids to the accomplishment of such a result.”[5]

    But please note that those words did not come from President Obama, but from William McKinley and the year was 1899. Each generation, yours included, is confronted by the eternal realities of competition and change. The facts, circumstances and intensities vary, but each new generation is compelled to find better ways of doing things, and better ways of creating wealth.

    Arthur also commented on the relationship of science and technology, but his thoughts could just as easily apply to commerce and technology. Listen to this paraphrase of his quote and see if you do not agree that business and engineering are the most natural of allies.

    “(Commerce) and technology co-evolve in a symbiotic relationship. Each takes part in the continued creation of the other, and as it does, takes in, digests and uses the other; and in doing so becomes thoroughly intermingled with the other. The two (commerce and technology) cannot be separated, they rely completely on one another.”[6]

    What good is the most brilliant invention if it has no application in the everyday world? We all honor fellow Ohioans, Orville and Wilbur Wright, for their famous achievement of heavier-than-air powered flight at Kitty Hawk. But did you know that their first flight was only 120 feet?[7] In other words, from this stage they would not reach the last row of seats in this hall!  But this very weekend, some of you will board aircraft, fly 35,000 feet in the air at over 500 miles per hour and land safely and unremarkably on another continent.

    How did we get from Kitty Hawk to modern jet aircraft? Two words: “Technology” and “commerce.”

    Matt Ridley, a brilliant columnist for the Wall Street Journal, pondered why it is that we award fame and celebrity to inventors – not nearly as much we give to singers, actors, or sports figures, but that’s a talk for another time – but we do not praise the “cheapeners,” those whose keen minds for business convey brilliant inventions from laboratories and work benches into everyday life.[8]

    Ridley writes, “A feature of innovation is that the greatest impact of a new idea comes not when the light bulb goes on over the (inventor’s) head, but when the resulting technology eventually becomes cheap enough for many people to use – perhaps decades later.”[9]

    And that means you! What you will create and the future that awaits you in the company of other innovators.

    Ironically, instead of celebrating those who make technology affordable and thus, useful for the masses, we do just the opposite. Sometimes, when a clever individual commercializes a technology, he becomes wealthy in the process. And that of course, arouses envy. Cornelius Vanderbilt cut the price of rail freight 90%, Andrew Carnegie slashed steel prices 75% and John D. Rockefeller cut oil prices 80%.[10]

    In doing so they enabled America to become a continental power and set the foundation for its rise to world leadership. As a reward, the press called them robber barons. It was not until they became great philanthropists that public opinion forgave them their success and accorded them the recognition that was always their due. Yes, perhaps that may echo the modern day version of robber barons, the financiers on Wall Street. They, too, have been pilloried by the press and Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. But many of these same financiers have applied their talents and wealth to support philanthropy and foundations that lead the way into the future.

    And while we are salvaging reputations, let’s add another. Charles H. Duell was the commissioner of the US Patent and Trademark Office in 1899.[11] He had the great misfortune of being mistakenly identified as the author of the now infamous quote, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”[12]  Let me instead relay to you something that Charles Duell did say, and which is as true on this fine spring evening in 2012 as it was when he wrote it, 110 years ago:

    “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish I that might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”[13]

    There are indeed wonders at the threshold, but who will usher them in?

    You will. The men and women of technology and commerce.

    The world is a fine and magical place, yet it can be made even better.

    We look to you to make it so.


    [1] Arthur, Brian. W. (2009) Nature of Technology. (1st ed.) New York: Simon & Schuster. P.10

    [2] Hardison, O.B. Jr. (1989) Disappearing through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century. (1st ed). New York: Penguin. P. xii

    [3] Hardison, Ibid

    [4] Arthur, Ibid

    [5] McKinley, William. State of the Union Address. 1899. http://stateoftheunion.onetwothree.net/texts/18991205.html

    [6] Arthur, Brian. Ibid P

    [7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright_brothers#Flights

    [8] Ridley, Matt. Three Cheers for the Cheapeners and Cost-Cutters. Wall Street Journal. May 7, 2011.

    [9] Ridley, Ibid

    [10] Ridley, Ibid

    [12] Sass, Samuel. Skeptical Inquirer magazine, Volume 13 (spring 1989), p.3 http://www.myoutbox.net/posass.htm10-313.

  • Topic Category: Technology and Commerce
  • Tags: technology engineering business
  • Filed in:

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