Human Innovation is an unstoppable steamroller, forever moving forward and crushing all obstacles in its way. Nothing can hold it back, not even for a moment. Nothing, that is, except for another steamroller of equal power charging in the opposite direction. We call that other steamroller Human Stupidity, and some amazing things happen when the two collide. For example ...
In 1975, Steve Sasson, an employee at Kodak, wanted to see if there was any use for this newfangled "charged couple device" some other egghead had recently invented. The device took light and turned it into electrical impulses, and through some pre-MacGyver MacGyvering, Sasson figured out how to store the impulses on a digital tape. He hooked that tape up to a TV, and was able to display the resulting image. Holy shit, Sasson had invented the foundation for digital photography. The image was grainy, but the entire process took 30 seconds. It would change the world ...
... several decades later.
Sasson immediately took his invention to Kodak executives, but they balked at the idea. They thought people wouldn't want to go through the hassle of hooking their cameras up to their TVs. No, people would want to stick to the current model of taking a picture at the beach, then driving to the drugstore to pay to have them developed, then waiting a week, only to find out that some guy's dick was poking out of the bottom of his swimsuit.
It wasn't until 1989 that Sasson finally created the first true digital camera. This time, it used image compression and had a slot for data storage built in.
Sasson took it to the executives, showing them once again how they could revolutionize the industry. Kodak sprung into action: They patented Sasson's camera, and ... did absolutely nothing else.
Kodak had a complete monopoly on photography. Introducing a digital alternative would cannibalize their own market share. Film and photo paper were big sellers. If people could buy Sasson's camera and store their photos digitally, how would Kodak sell them tons of other superfluous shit?
Unfortunately for Kodak, other companies had no such concerns. Digital cameras caught on in a big way, and consumers had every brand to choose from except Kodak. They didn't cave and make a digital camera until it was way too late. Now, Kodak did make billions from patent fees from Sasson's original camera, but patents don't last forever. That money stopped flowing in 2007, and the company filed for bankruptcy five years later. Kodak invented the digital camera twice, and still managed to get killed by the digital camera.
Nearly every American knows what a pain in the ass it is to file your taxes. If you've never done that, then thanks for reading, Wesley Snipes! Here's a little how-to for you: First, you have to take those blank tax forms you keep throwing away and fill in what you earned that year. Next you subtract what you paid in taxes. Finally, you calculate what else you might owe. If you make a mistake or the government merely doesn't like the way you dot all your "i"s with hearts, you'll get audited.
It is not a necessary nuisance. Citizens of 36 countries, like Sweden, have their taxes done for them by the government, using a "return-free" system. They're free to either double-check the government's work, or trust that it's close enough and go back to looking at Trans Ams on Craigslist. This system works out well for taxpayers. The IRS is one of America's least-popular departments, at 52 percent unfavorability, while Sweden's Tax Department is one of the most popular branches of their government. We've adopted their furniture and horse meatballs, so why not their tax system?
The United States has put forth a few efforts to revamp tax filing. Congress passed a bill back in the Clinton era to create a return-free system by 2007. Intuit and H&R Block poured tens of millions into lobbying against the regulation. All those bribes paid off, and the IRS agreed not to "compete" with them by implementing return-free filing. Instead they twisted Congress's bill into forcing the IRS to create a "free filing" option by 2007, but less than 3 percent of taxpayers use the (intentionally) shitty software, since it's much easier to swallow your pride and pay TurboTax its ransom.
Women react differently to medicine than men. Giving a woman Viagra does not bequeath her a nice thick boner, for example. This is a problem. Not the lack of lady-boners -- that's just biology -- but the different medical reactions between the sexes. In the past, medical research focused on men, because everything focused on men. Some of Western medicine's early ideas about women are pretty fucking amazing. They thought vaginas were inverted penises, for example. Hippocrates thought wombs moved around women's bodies like rail-riding hobos, and that's what made them sick.
In the 1950s, a tragic side effect of the drug thalidomide caused birth defects in babies when given to pregnant women. And that's why any woman who could become pregnant was subsequently banned by the FDA from participating in medical trials. The intention was good, but not knowing if a new drug will cause women to grow a third vagina (next to the other two we know they have, according to our medical research) seems like a recipe for more tragedies.
Congress repealed that law in 1993 and required women to be part of medical trials. But the attitude of exclusion persisted. As recently as 2004, women made up less than a quarter of patients in clinical trials. And of the women in those trials, many had to prove they were on contraceptives or sterile. If you're a pregnant woman, medical science is pretty sure you shouldn't smoke or kickbox ... and that's about it.
For a long time, buying a blender in the UK was a huge pain in the ass. That's because British appliances didn't come with plugs until 1992. Before then, you had to buy your appliance and plug separately, then wire that shit yourself. If you're thinking that's dangerous, and that people spend years in school learning how to wire things without killing themselves, you're right! Between 1980 and 1988, amateur wiring sent almost 3,000 people to the hospital, and 32 died.
Now, in the past, this was almost a necessity. Back in the '40s, there was no standard on what a wall socket should look like. Since every house might have a different socket, it made sense to sell appliances and plugs separately. But the three-slot socket introduced in 1947 caught on. By the '90s, 95 percent of British households had it as the standard. So at that point, why not sell the plug and appliance as a set? Because no company wanted to lose out on making two sales at once. If a few people got electrocuted so they could keep charging an extra 8 squiddlypence or whatever to power that new Betamax, so be it. Only in the early '90s did the government finally require manufacturers to sell their appliances with a plug, and thus stop electrocuting their customers. The government didn't explicitly state that companies also had to stop spitting in customers' faces, but it was gently implied.
When humans first invented instant canned light, we invented the shit out of it. Light bulbs made in the 1900s are far superior to the ones you bought at the dollar store last week. Some bulbs made 115 years ago are still burning to this day.
Why do the bulbs we have today suck so bad? Well, look at your phone. No, not the one in your hand, the one cluttering up your junk drawer. Remember how amazing it was when you bought it? Remember how eight months after you bought it, the battery life started sucking and it stopped playing pornography at an acceptable frame rate? The phone and the light bulb have the same problem: planned obsolescence.
In 1924, major manufacturers gathered together into what one might call "a cabal." Philips, Osram, and General Electric all met up in Switzerland to discuss their shitty turnover rate. People seemed to buy one light bulb and then never need another one. The future looked grim -- all the world's basement stairs brightly, blindingly lit forever, the poor literally drowning in disposable income, begging for a savior.
And so the noble cabal agreed to restrict light bulb lifespans to 1,000 hours.
But these companies weren't content to only increase turnover on light bulbs. This model of planned obsolescence spread like wildfire during the Great Depression. To stimulate the economy, companies made products that people had to buy over and over again. Now it's the industry standard in everything from computers to clothes. But it's better than the alternative: Not buying sweet new stuff all the time. What kind of bitter hell would that be?
John is an analyst and occasional writer. He tweets at @j_p_ford and blogs spare facts he finds in his research on http://www.learnmiscellaneous.com. Credit for the FDA entry goes entirely to Amy. I'll always miss you, Amy.
Who cares that this disposable camera from Kodak doesn't have the same crisp picture quality of a digital model? You can't throw digital cameras in the trash when you're done and really, that's at least 80% of the fun.
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