What Is the Most Overrated Invention?

Lee Jackson, author, Palaces of Pleasure

The internet. As early as 1858, Punch magazine commented on the prospect of new technology creating “house telegraphs” that would put one constantly “within five minutes of every noodle who wants to ask you a question … every acquaintance who has a favour to beg, or a disagreeable thing to communicate.” Sound familiar?

Robert P. Crease, author, The Workshop and the World

IQ tests: widely administered, morally pernicious.

Finn Brunton, author, Digital Cash

With perhaps the most hype for the least consequence of any media technology so far, virtual reality—the Smell-O-Vision of the 1990s—keeps going from icon of the future to relic of the past without a present in-between.

Graham Roumieu

Clive Thompson, author, Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World

For generations, we’ve regarded the automobile as a symbol of personal freedom and autonomy. It has certainly propelled a ton of economic activity, but it also generates monstrous amounts of CO2 and environmentally ruinous sprawl. The sooner we detach our personal identity from cars and car ownership, the better.

Dorian Lynskey, author, The Ministry of Truth

Virtual assistants epitomize the tech industry’s unfortunate habit of building dystopia by accident and the public’s eager complicity. Most of us trade privacy for convenience, but my laziness goes only so far—there’s no task I’d rather delegate to a data-harvesting digital spy instead of doing myself. Alexa is not your friend.

Reader Responses

Andrew M. Gombos Jr., Houston, Texas

The Dreadnought-class battleship. In the early part of the 20th century, the ships became symbols of British national pride and power and were thought of as the ultimate weapon. Yet they were terribly expensive, and their guns were not accurate. They were seldom used in battle and nearly bankrupted the British empire. They could be sunk by a single, far cheaper torpedo. They did nothing to prevent World War I and even less to win the war.

Graham Roumieu

Frank LaPosta Visco, Troy, N.Y.

The Segway.

Andrew Hellman, Shoreline, Wash.

What’s so great about sliced bread? You want toasted bread? Try naan or an English muffin. You want a sandwich? Try a sub or a pita pocket. You want a piece of bread? Try tearing.

J. P. Paz Soldáz, Lima, Peru

The clock. The inventor must have thought he or she had subjugated time, but now we know that it was the other way around.

Emily Myers, York, Pa.

Engagement rings were a ploy crafted by greedy diamond companies, and now they are a seeming requirement for any couple looking to get married.

Graham Roumieu

Eric Scigliano, Seattle, Wash.

Defensive walls. Many of them are gratuitous and soon abandoned (Hadrian’s Wall; its successor, the Antonine Wall; those surrounding countless forts and castles) or futile (ancient Troy’s, the Great Wall of China, the Maginot Line). President Donald Trump’s border wall would be both.

Richard Iverson, Hood River, Ore.

The chair, intended to provide a comfortable respite, has instead had a debilitating effect on countless deskbound humans.

Anne Wells, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Without question, the most overrated invention has to be the car alarm. Has anyone ever rushed to a scene upon hearing its klaxons? I rest my case.

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