Thursday, April 15, 2004

Freedom Through Invention

Via Andrew Sullivan comes a link to the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. These awards are for inventions that have a great impact due to the use of simple inventions for fudamental problems in the lives of their communities. The link above describes the invention of a method for food preservation by refridgeration that uses no electricity, only a reliance on the simple rules of thermodynamics.

The lifetime of fruits and vegetables using this method, consisting of only two clay pots and wet sand, can be extended dramatically. For subsistence farmers, the difference eliminates the need to spend as much time selling the produce at market. That task has traditionally been done by young girls in the family. Now that their time is more open, these girls are starting to attend school in larger numbers.

With less spoilage occurring, some farmers are finding it possible to stay at their farms and not have to go look for work in the cities. This simple invention has slowed a major demographic trend in the area.

Everyone does what they do given the environment around them. One is only free with respect to physical reality. I can not fly like a bird merely by flapping my arms, nor am I free to get to New York in the next five minutes. With respect to the economic needs of their families, the girls were not free to go to school. Some farmers were not free to stay at their farms.

Technology is the means by which humanity changes its environment. With this blog, I am free to write words that are accesible all over the world at a moment's notice, a power that was only a dream twenty years ago. Some day people might be free to go to New York in five minutes or less provided teleporters are inventible.

Those are grand ideas, but even smaller ideas, like inexpensive refridgeration, can have vast repurcussions. Now that some of those girls can go to school, who can say whether one of them will be the next inventer, or at least inspire her children to invent.

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