When I was six years old, I decided that the world would be infinitely better if everything was made of marshmallows. When I told my mother this, she didn’t seem to agree. Perhaps she thought I was annoyed at my limited sweet allowance and would throw a tantrum next time we visited the newsagents. Or maybe she’d watched Ghostbusters too many times and couldn’t think of anything more dreadful than everything turning giant and marshmallowy.
But, neither of those things had crossed my mind at all. I was actually thinking of ways to save the world, albeit from the perspective of a six-year-old. I was naive for believing that life would improve if things were constructed out of confectionery, but perhaps I was smarter than some adults whose dreams have revolutionised, and somewhat ruined, the world.
Many innovations come at a hefty cost — and I’m not talking about ludicrous price tags. While shiny new technology often has teething problems, some inventions require decades of remedial work to reverse their damage. And like a bizarre game of Jeopardy, many ‘solutions’ have been created which leave us oblivious as to what on Earth the question was — and why it ever mattered.
Civilisation as a whole seems to move backwards every time it moves forwards. And people don’t appreciate that they are part of the problem by misusing innovation to their own and others’ detriment.
We’ll get onto the rationale behind a marshmallow world later, but first, let’s look at the crazy world of innovation.
Solutions That Cause More Problems
Who would be stupid enough to create things that cause worse problems than they solve? Plenty of people, actually. Decade after decade, businesspeople devise solutions to things that weren’t life-threatening problems, which eventually cause…er…death and other awful stuff.
Look at cars, for example. Thanks to the affordable vehicles pioneered by Henry Ford, we became able to travel further independently. But, out of the boom in car ownership came mass pollution, congestion, deaths and injuries from accidents, road rage, oil wars, caravanning, Vin Diesel’s career, and all sorts of terrible by-products that would never have emerged if we were still jigging along in horse-drawn carts.
So, society had to ameliorate the problems that widespread car ownership caused by coming up with corrective solutions, such as catalytic convertors, bewildering spaghetti junctions, breathalysers, speed cameras, road humps, airbags, road rage classes, carbon-saving initiatives, the UN, and bumper stickers cheerfully warning “If you think this is slow, wait until we go uphill!”.
None of this would have happened if we hadn’t turned into greedy gas-guzzlers. Governments now encourage us to lift-share, take public transport, cycle and walk in a bid to save the environment and our sanity. Y’know, like we used to before mass car production ruined things.
Other dishonourable mentions: Weapons, payday loans, Jägermeister.
Inventions That Accomplish The Polar Opposite Of Their Purpose
Surely there’s some mistake? People wouldn’t buy into things that actively defeat their very purpose, would they? Yes. Yes, they would. And they lap them up like masochists who have run out of conventional torture devices.
Social Media has spread like wifi-fire this century, with platforms popping up at a dizzying rate. But for something that was supposed to connect people like one big happy family, it sure has made a lot of people anti-social, angry, jealous, isolated and miserable.
There are so many wars on Twitter that they have their own hashtag #Twitterwars. Before the public was let loose on the internet to air their vitriolic views, ‘trolls’ only appeared in fairytales, and ‘flaming’ was something fires did. Relative anonymity has made people bolder, brasher and crueller to strangers than ever before. (I’m aware that I’m setting myself up here, but I’m a Buddhist, so I won’t retaliate.)
Studies have consistently shown that the more time people spend on Facebook, the less content they are. This is direct causation, not mere correlation. Researchers asked regular Facebook users to take time off from the platform, measuring their levels of happiness and self-esteem before and after the experiment. The less people logged in, the better they felt about themselves and their lives.
Recent research shows that isolated elderly people might benefit most from social media, rather than selfie-taking teens and “look-at-my-lunch” millennials. It’s a shame that senior-loving firm Saga didn’t think up this idea and bar youngsters from their services. Then maybe we wouldn’t see as many sad young souls sitting face-to-face in public, completely ignoring one another as they pore over virtual worlds.
Mental health and wellbeing in supposedly civilised countries are going down the pan faster than you can say “slash social services”. People are becoming addicted to virtual experiences that make them deeply unhappy and insecure.
Perhaps instead of prescribing ‘happy pills’ to people, doctors should offer some lifestyle advice, such as walking in nature, being with friends, helping the community, and consuming good food in physical, rather than photographic, form. Y’know, like we used to before everything became pixels.
Other dishonourable mentions: Lifestyle magazines, diets, work reviews.
Smart Devices That Are Superfluous
I’m glad to say I am perfectly capable of turning on the lights in my house with a swift flick of my finger. It’s never been a chore, nor something that I have torn my hair out over. I can’t recall ever having sat tearfully under a light switch, hoping some kind soul would operate it for me. The same goes for adjusting the heating, drawing the curtains, answering the doorbell, and operating other easy-peasy things around my home.
If you do think any of the above things are a chore, then frankly, you are probably part-sloth. And maybe you’ve bought several expensive ‘smart devices’ that do these energy-draining tasks for you, so you can lie on your thermo-regulated chaise-longue while invisible forces control the homeostasis of your home.
Now, I’m not against sensible things like self-defrosting freezers. After all, who hasn’t accidentally stabbed themselves (or someone else) with a fork while trying to chip away the icicles that prevent you getting to your grub?
But, if you have an app that tells you who’s at the door before you actually have to get up and answer it anyway, it seems you’ve added an unnecessary step to the process. Such a tool could only be useful for someone fleeing from a fatwa or the FBI. And even then, it might be pretty superfluous, since going into hiding generally means you won’t be answering the door at all.
If you have so much money that you have to spend it on being lazy, donate your cash to a charity project that provides prosthetics for the limbless. Then they can have the dignity of being able to do the tasks you can’t be bothered to.
Other dishonourable mentions: Over-sensitive car alarms, discombobulated sat-navs, Alexa, Siri.
Life-hacking Devices That Diminish Our Lives
The most precious things in life are not material. Freedom, integrity, education, health, human connection, and meaning make us wealthier than King Midas. But time probably tops most people’s lists, with most claiming that they don’t have enough hours in the day.
Instead of suggesting we stop working like dogs for them, kindly businesspeople came up with time-and-effort-saving innovations to magically put more minutes on our clocks.
Washing machines make sense, because no-one benefits from rubbing their hands raw scrubbing stains. Watches are also good, because sundials aren’t all that portable and lack accuracy — especially at night. And who has the time to actually work out the time, when they already don’t have enough?
But many life-hacking devices rob us of the richness of life and things we value. Being chained to a smartphone steals some of our freedom and, ironically, our time. When people lose their phones, after the initial panic and annoyance, they actually report feeling freer.
And what about being healthy? Why would you do virtual exercise instead of playing lawn tennis? A games console can’t crack jokes with you over the net and it won’t give you fresh air or vital connections to others.
Using too many widgets, gadgets and tools also deprives you of irreplaceable learning opportunities. Critical thinking is essential for becoming creative and wise. If you don’t use it, you lose it — that is very true of the brain. But, there’s a brain-training app for that! Is there, really? Well, you wouldn’t need to use one if you stopped delegating your thinking to devices and making your brain dull.
We don’t lack time per se — we lack quality time. Doing real things involving human touches and connection with the world enhances our life experience. Learn from mistakes, teachers, and mentors, and self-correct to keep your brain developing. Y’know, like we used to.
Other dishonourable mentions: Microwave meals, Wii-fit.
The Paradox Of Innovation
It’s us humans, isn’t it? We’re the problem. We are the creators and consumers of our woes.
Creative types naturally want to express that urge by coming up with innovative things. Many of them may well have dreamed of making the world better. But ignorance of what really matters, or possibly oodles of cash, turned them over to the dark side of creating pointless, damaging or soul-destroying products.
But while Joe Public remains enchanted by novelty, even if it turns out to be fool’s gold, then this is the way things will always be. Until we learn to take what we truly need and leave the rest, we’re encouraging producers to churn out more trash than treasure, leading us to be even more lax and lazy.
Until we realise that we must use innovation responsibly, then we are doomed to always having to fix things we have broken with our selfishness, greed and carelessness.
Life is not meant to be easy like a paint-by-numbers picture. It’s supposed to challenge us, otherwise we would have all been born baby geniuses. It’s through challenges that we grow and create meaningful lives.
So, What About Those Marshmallows?
What originally inspired my sensitive six-year-old imagination was hearing of a terrible pile-up near our town, which killed several people. Since marshmallows are soft and fluffy, I thought that no-one would ever get hurt in a marshmallow world. I think the airbag guys stole my idea.
While my original idea was a kind-hearted one, of course it would be infeasible. But even if marshmallows had the necessary properties to create everything we need in our lives, it would all go horribly wrong.
If my childhood dream had come true, I’d likely be blamed for other people’s property being scavenged, toasted, or dunked in steaming cocoa, and the whole world turning diabetic (not that it isn’t already).
So, I’ve revised my thoughts about marshmallows. We’re not ready for a marshmallow world when we still have marshmallow minds. What we are ready, even desperate for, is for a world where people are more mindful about what, and how, they create and consume.
And we need to stop being scared of challenges and trying to quash them with innovation. We should recognise them as the seeds that enable us to bloom into stronger, smarter, more fulfilled individuals. Oh, and don’t go overboard on the marshmallows — I did that once and was sick for a week.