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Hollywood Has Abandoned the Citizen-Inventor

As a child of the 1990s, only three possible jobs existed to my young mind: paleontologist, Chicago Bull, and inventor. The last seemed the most practical of the options, as I lacked the height to dunk or the lateral agility to juke velociraptors. Invention seemed practical by its sheer omnipresence. In grade school we read about Great Men like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, singular visionaries who invented the future on their own initiative.

Television and movies brought it closer to home. Edison and Tesla were distant from me by time and complicated suits, but on the big (and little) screen, inventors were my contemporaries. They were of similar look and means, most notably in their “laboratory.” Pop culture inventors invariably worked out of their garages, that emblem of middle-class mobility. Invention seemed within reach when it was two steps out the front door.

This next generation doesn’t suffer from the same delusion, and their sanity frightens me. Instead, invention has become a secret knowledge, accessible only to M.I.T. grads (and occasionally Stanford). Rather than a meritocratic act of creation, invention in the public consciousness has become elite in nature and limited in scope. The pool of possible inventors has grown smaller, and the depth of their potential shallower. We used to dream of flying cars; now we only hope for slightly less buggy apps.

The fault lies in a subtle yet violent shift in our imagination away from our own responsibility to invent. Pop culture’s vision of invention creates a place where inventions are not only possible but expected. In an ouroboros of cause and effect, our depiction of invention on the screen has shifted from populist obligation to the exclusive right of a technocratic priestly caste. To put it less verbosely, the inventors in film used to look like us; now they look like Robert Downey Jr.

Some of the fondest memories from my childhood are of staying home sick, watching daytime television. One commercial in this timeslot played more frequently than most. It showed a cartoon caveman carving the first wheel out of stone, and the voice-over encouraged viewers to patent their own invention at the advertised company, because clearly copyright law should have come before pants.

The ad, like all daytime television commercials without Wilford Brimley, proved to be a scam. But then the whole myth of the lone wolf inventor was a scam as well. Tesla got his break working for Westinghouse, and Edison had his own sweatshop of engineers cranking out inventions while he was busy electrocuting dogs.

But the unreality is hardly the point. After all, culture is just myth with the skepticism withered away. In printing the legend over the truth, we created a society where inventors did arise. Likewise, through a conspiracy of education and Bob Barker, I believed I could invent a cotton gin and steer the course of human history.

American film and television had no shortage of such inspiring lies. For the sake of brevity and my lacking a Criterion Channel subscription, let’s start with the 1960s. The three most prominent pop culture inventors of the time were, not coincidentally, all professors; one Absent-Minded, one Nutty, and the last so renowned on his little island he was known simply as “the Professor.”

Fred MacMurray’s Absent-Minded Professor Brainard wants to use flubber to make basketball players jump and help out the military, resisting the attempts of a local businessman to exploit it for pure profit. Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor Kelp doesn’t sell his transformation serum to the military-industrial complex to create an army of super soldiers and instead keeps it for the more relatable desire of scoring a hot blonde. And if Gilligan’s Island is indeed a microcosm of civilization, as we’ve long suspected, then the Professor is invention at its most altruistic. He never condescends to his fellow castaways, instead using all manner of coconut to ease their troubles. He always has time for a bamboo fashion show or whatever nonsense, even if constructing a raft is a better use of his talents.

While academia is far from a blue-collar field, all three demonstrated their populist bona fides. Only fifteen years from the Manhattan Project, the public still saw invention as the domain of the university. But more importantly, they saw academics as the domain of the people. The GI bill wedged a work boot into the college door — it was no longer just the nesting ground for George Plimpton types. Here the professors use their inventions for plebian good: finding love and helping white kids dunk.

Read entire article at The New Atlantis