The Conversation

Responses and reverberations

The Inventors Shaping Our Future

For November’s special technology issue, The Atlantic asked prominent figures in technology, science, medicine, and design to identify the visionaries whose inventions could have a significant impact on society. Leading the list was Elon Musk of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors, a choice some readers protested. A conversation ensued online about what makes someone an inventor.
You put Elon Musk at the top of the list of candidates for the greatest living inventor. You do not, however, mention a single invention credited to Mr. Musk. Nor are any such inventions mentioned in the various online biographies of Mr. Musk.
Are you not confusing inventor with businessman?
Peter Blau
Weston, Conn.
Very few people on this list have invented something. Most have merely used already invented resources to develop variations of businesses that have existed for decades.
mrsatyre comment
Most of the people on this list are just paeans to the Cult of Personality. I respect Musk, and would classify him as a visionary, but he’s no inventor.
Eric Scoles comment
Inventors are not just people who conceive of and model an idea. Inventors use the environment around them to get that idea. Through open-sourcing, we can all be inventors. Isn’t this the simple genius of people like Musk? He sees the problem. Defines it. Then has others help him get to the best solution. We need more “inventors” like Musk.
DTARS comment

The Great Forgetting

Elsewhere in the technology issue, Nicholas Carr warned of the perils of automation. Relying on computers to fly our planes, find our cancers, design our buildings, and audit our businesses is all well and good, but what happens when the computer fails?

In my work as a software developer, I’m guilty of contributing to the problems described in “The Great Forgetting.” Despite being an atheist, I often imagine Saint Peter at the gates of heaven asking me to justify my life. Saying “I helped eliminate the need for skill in the world” is not a great recommendation for admittance.
John Goodman
Cambridge, Mass.
Cautiously embrace the new, but do not utterly forsake the old. Design tech with a fallback where possible, such as astronauts knowing Morse code.
Patrick Ervolina comment

The Nature of Diversity

In September’s Chartist, “The Real Cost of Segregation,” Emily Badger wrote, “Segregation is a problem because it concentrates poverty, which isolates minorities from access to good jobs, quality schools, and healthy environments.”
As an African American public-school teacher in Chicago, I took issue with this article. I love my South Side Chicago neighborhood. It’s a living memory of the Black Metropolis, still steeped in its strong black roots.
What Emily Badger failed to account for is the fact that many black people, of multiple income levels, choose to live in “black” neighborhoods. They do this for many reasons, but it is still a choice that they have the right to make. The article also doesn’t account for the fact that black people don’t need white people in order to improve their lives. The argument should focus on the need for economic diversity in blighted areas. If you’re arguing that economic diversity leads to more equal opportunities, then your argument is true, and I agree. However, I take issue with economic diversity being colored white. The South Side’s rampant violence, failing schools, and poor health come from the lack of economic opportunities—not from the lack of whiteness.
These problems are much more structural and need to be tackled in this way.
Naadia Owens
Chicago, Ill.

Emily Badger replies:

Overwhelming data documenting disparities in health, income, and educational prospects within black communities are not a reflection of the fact that these communities “need” whites; they’re a reflection of the fact that cities have historically underinvested in nonwhite neighborhoods. This reality doesn’t deny the right of black people to choose where they live. Nor does it imply that the root policy problem within black communities is a lack of “whiteness.” What it does tell us, however, is that decades of segregation have yielded terrible, compounding costs for minorities, who are disproportionately less likely to have access to good schools, jobs, opportunities, and healthy environments.
We can certainly try to change the underlying disinvestment without changing the demographic makeup of a community. But to do that, we first have to recognize that racial disparities exist across our cities. Acknowledging the extensive data that support this is not the same as saying that only white people can help blacks improve their lives.

Advice and Consent

In “The Passion of Flannery O’Connor” (November), James Parker delved into a prayer journal kept by the author.

James Parker misquotes “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: “He [Jesus] thrown everything off balance.” When O’Connor supplies words for the Misfit, she writes them as he speaks them, capturing the sound of his voice. Earlier in the story, she has Bobby Lee “thow” a shirt to the Misfit. In the selected quote for Parker’s “Ironic Inversions” sidebar, Jesus has “thown” everything off balance. Only a missing r, but in O’Connor’s world, it matters.

The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel: Reader Responses

In November, The Atlantic presented its survey of “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel.” As James Fallows noted in his accompanying analysis, “Any collection of 50 breakthroughs must exclude 50,000 more.” Here are some of those 50,000, suggested by readers in the magazine’s inbox, in the article’s online comments, on Twitter, and directly to Fallows. 

The axle

Without it, the wheel would have remained a mere novelty.

— Brian P. H. Green, Thunder Bay, Ontario

The slide rule

Solar cells

They offer the promise of repairing some of the damage to the environment caused by the inventions on The Atlantic’s list.

— Eric Hausker, Rahway, N.J.

The stirrup

Musical instruments

Nearly every instrument in the Western symphony orchestra is an example of ingenuity, precision, and craftsmanship servicing the noblest of goals: the achievement of beauty.

— Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Rochester, N.Y.



They were at least indirectly, if not directly, involved in most of the items on the original list.

— Bob Cudeck, St. Paul, Minn.

The threshing machine

Credit cards

Sound recording

Broadcasting is essentially a distribution system. But recording is to performance what canvas is to art, paper to literature. Sound and film capture and preserve the ephemera of our culture, otherwise interred with its creators.

— John McDonough, Kenilworth, Ill.

The bicycle

The semaphore

The horse collar

The elevator Without it, the modern city could not exist.

— Ruth Shack, Miami, Fla.


Disposable Diapers

Sliced bread


In November’s “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel,” the internal combustion engine (No. 7) was mistakenly listed as a late-20th-century invention, rather than a late-19th-century invention.