What Technology Should Be Un-Invented?

We asked 101 technology leaders what innovation they wish could go back in the box.

Rashid Umar Abbasi / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Hearing from the leaders of the tech world is always revealing, and very often surprising. In our second annual Silicon Valley Insiders Poll, a panel of 101 executives, innovators, and thinkers weigh in on some of the biggest technological, political, and cultural questions of the moment.

Silicon Valley celebrates and rewards innovation (or so it brags). Industry leaders often speak winsomely of disruption, progress, and human invention.

So when we ran an unscientific poll of leaders and thinkers in tech, we had to ask: Which technology do you wish you could un-invent? What innovation do you think should go “back in the box” and be banished forever?

The two winning responses were: selfie sticks and nuclear weapons.

But let’s go through some runners-up first.

Some respondents thought of communication technologies they use or see every day. Two would dismiss 24-hour cable news. Three said that email should be abolished. Five called for Facebook’s destruction or the reduction of social media more generally. Vint Cerf, a vice president at Google, would get rid of the telephone (but not the smartphones that followed).

Aaron Patzer, the CEO of Fountain.com, wanted to de-invent “the Newsfeed” as a concept. “The front page of every (popular) site on the Internet today is the same: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Medium, Quora. They are endless scrolls of trivialities and shared links. These sites have simply become the newspapers—albeit customized by our interests and friends—of yesteryear,” he writes.

Others looked more to innovations that eroded human health. Individuals voted to scrap cigarettes and heroin. Jillian York, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wants to annul “genetic testing for the masses.”
Jeremy Howard, CEO of the health-care company Enlitic, took a more targeted approach. “Leaded petrol,” he said. “It killed 5,000 people a year in the U.S.A., and it led to 2 million children a year having toxic levels of lead in their blood. And yet the dangers of the substance were known about and discussed back in 1922, before it was first added to gasoline.”
Now we get to the two “winning” categories.
About a quarter of respondents decried seemingly small-minded gizmos—the so-called “selfie stick” category, which more than 10 percent of respondents would specifically prefer to see eliminated forever. One respondent targeted the Shake Weight. Another went after Segways. Jennifer Pahlka, the founder and executive director of Code for America, said the Salad Shooter should go away. Her response seemed to cover the whole bracket: “The world is full of products no one really needs.”
The other largest category was technology of war. Specifically, nuclear weapons, which more than 10 percent of respondents would also un-invent.
Tim Wilson, a managing partner at Artiman Ventures, would de-invent chemical weapons as well, in addition to human knowledge of nuclear fusion and fission. “All came from extensive research into the periodic table. If we missed some rows/columns we may be better off,” he wrote.
Other panelists went after similarly world-historic technologies. Two respondents would retract gunpowder. (Which is a more risky move, given the role guns played in 18th and 19th-century democratic revolutions.) Two more wanted to get rid of drones. And Kate Crawford, an academic at Microsoft Research, went after a specific tool with some history behind it.
“It's a tough choice, but the land mine would be in my top ten,” she said. It’s “a fully autonomous weapon that’s been around since 1277, still killing indiscriminately around the world. But it’s far less sexy to talk about than killer robots.”