Future Tense

Why It Makes No Sense to Judge Groups of People by Their Histories of Invention

Patent drawing for a flying machine, 1869. 

National Archives

On Monday, Iowa Rep. Steve King, appearing on MSNBC, asked which nonwhite “subgroups” had contributed more than white people to “civilization.” King’s comments came about a week after the hashtag #WhiteInventions appeared on Twitter, spurring some of the most savory types of Twitter users to brag about the things that white people had given the world.

Many responded to King’s words, and to the hashtag, by tallying up inventions made by nonwhite, non-European groups.

Others pointed to the relationship between “white inventions,” violence, and oppression, or the many “white inventions” that have turned out to be laughable hackery. (In the end, most of the #WhiteInventions tweets were of this hashtag-trolling type.)

But these responses to the racist concept of “white inventions” are talking past the real problem with this argument. A tally of past inventions is always going to be an insufficient measure of any group’s worth. We have no idea how many potential innovations have been lost over the years because the people who might have brought them into the world haven’t been given the education and the financial and legal support to realize them. Also, any given invention is the product of a social system, and “white” and “non-white” social systems have never operated in hermetic isolation from one another. (As historian Lynn Hunt explained in an interview about King’s comments with Time’s Lily Rothman, “Western civilization” is an early-20th-century invention; East, West, North, and South have been sharing people and ideas back and forth for centuries.) Finally, assessing worthiness by level of innovation ignores the valuable work done by people who “invent” nothing new, but provide the labor that lets societies continue forward.

King’s comments and the #WhiteInventions hashtag are just the July 2016 entry in a longer history of white celebration of technology and creativity as inherent signs of superiority. This ideology has had real-world consequences. In two books on European and American ideas about technology as primacy (Machines as the Measure of Men and Dominance by Design), historian Michael Adas shows how European and Americans have, over hundreds of years, used their history of innovation as justification for colonialism and war. Adas writes, for example, of the way early English settlers in the North American colonies negatively assessed levels of Native innovation, and then used those negative assessments to justify their own colonialism. Superior European technology, settlers argued, would not only subdue the Native people they found in the New World, but also convince them of the inferiority of their own way of life, “converting” them to Christianity and European culture. Adas argues that this story has played out over and over again, with slight variations, in European and American history.

Since the idea of white technological superiority has often served as justification for oppressing or displacing nonwhite people, the ideology has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because they’ve lived in a social system created by a belief in white superiority, many potentially inventive people have, over the years, lost their chance to develop their ideas, or to claim credit for them. Consider, as one example, the great loss and appropriation of human potential through chattel slavery in the United States. Recently, the New York Times reported that Jack Daniel’s is now admitting the crucial role Nearis Green, an enslaved worker, seems to have played in teaching the original Daniel how to distill whiskey. The Green story must stand in for a million such daily interactions, in which black workers contributed knowledge to white projects and went unrecognized.

Here’s another such story, told by John Parker, who was born into slavery, bought his way out, and later became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. As a young man, while still enslaved, Parker had a job at a foundry in Alabama. There, he began experimenting with invention. “I had been quietly working for some time on a new idea of a circular harrow or clod smasher, which was a very important farm implement of that period with so much new land to break up,” Parker said in a series of interviews with a newspaper reporter (later published as his autobiography). “Being handy with tools, in my own time I secretly made a model. It looked so good I showed it to the superintendent, who took it so much to heart, I never saw my model again.”

Parker appealed to a higher authority, the owner of the foundry, who asked the superintendent to clarify the matter. The man lied. Parker confessed to his interviewer: “The words were hardly out of his mouth when I had him by the throat. If I had been normal, I never would have done such a senseless thing like that. But I had hopes that my invention would not only pay me out of slavery, but give me a start when I was free.” The moment of violence lost Parker his place at the foundry. “To add to my cup of bitterness,” he said, when he passed by his old place of employment later on, “I saw at least seven of my clod crushers packed and ready for shipment. I stopped and counted them over and over again. The profits on that shipment would have practically wiped out my indebtedness, but I passed on a slave and a beggar.”

Put cases like Parker’s and Green’s, in which innovation and knowledge went unrewarded because of the inventor’s position in an unfair social system, aside. Another reason “who invented what” doesn’t suffice as an evaluation of group merit: Invention doesn’t happen in a vacuum. For every patent-holder, imagine an army of maintainers, raisers of children, teachers, caregivers, administrators, and organizers. (As Deb Chachra put it in the Atlantic in 2015, in an essay titled “Why I Am Not A Maker,” “Walk through a museum. Look around a city. Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labor … that is mostly performed by women.”)

Glorification of past innovation, whether they be #WhiteInventions or the creations of non-white people, reinforces a system that has rewarded spectacular achievement at the expense of the kinds of labor non-white, nonmale workers have often performed. It also implies that an individual invention is the sole product of its inventor’s brilliant mind, and not the result of a social system that nourished and supported the inventor during invention. Until we stop thinking about invention in these ahistorical ways, we’ll remain stuck in this poisonous loop.