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The Man Who Broke The World
A new essay from me on the disquieting legacy of Thomas Midgley Jr. and the problem of technology's unintended consequences.
A little more than ten years ago, when I was first spitballing ideas with the producers of what became our TV series How We Got To Now, the first real hint of a foundation for the show was the story of Willis Carrier and the invention of air conditioning, a story that embodied the strange propensity of technological innovations to trigger long-term secondary effects that would have seemed preposterous to their original inventors. With Carrier, the causal chain went something like this: he invents the underlying technological behind AC trying to build a dehumidifier for a Brooklyn printing company; it turns out that people actually enjoyed being in the room with the device on hot muggy days, so he transforms it into a product targeted at large offices or movie theaters; decades later it comes to the home in the form of central air and window units; the widespread adoption of AC in the post-WWII era suddenly makes it far more tolerable to live in desert or tropical climates, which helps trigger one of the largest migrations in American history, creating the Sun Belt; that migration shifts the balance of the electoral college and plays a critical role in the election of Ronald Reagan. It’s not that air conditioning caused Ronald Reagan to be elected; but it’s almost certainly true that had the technology not been invented, he would have required a very different electoral path to the White House.
How We Got To Now is filled with those strange migrations, as is Wonderland, the book I wrote next. (Toymakers invent frivolous automata in the 18th-century to amuse wealthy salon attendees in Paris, which plants the seed for the punch card automation of the Jacquard loom, which gives Charles Babbage an input mechanism for his Analytical Engine, the first programmable computer ever imagined.) Mostly those stories were told with a sense of wonder and delight; the magic of seemingly unrelated developments locked together in some unpredictable causal chain. They had a certain six-degrees narrative drama to them: how can we get from the invention of AC to Ronald Reagan in one unified sequence of events? But in Farsighted, the book I wrote next, I started to think about how you might anticipate some of those downstream effects, how you might begin to make choices that took into account the longer term consequences of your actions. In this I was very much influenced by conversations with some of the folks who helped pioneer scenario planning, like Jay Oglivy and Peter Schwartz—and also my conversations with Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and Alexander Rose at the Long Now Foundation. Alexander actually gave me the idea for one of the setpieces in Farsighted, which was also a New York Times Magazine story, on a technological decision that might have the longest-term consequences of all: whether or not to send messages towards parts of the universe that seem hospitable to intelligent life. (A debate which will no doubt be revived when The Three Body Problem comes to Netflix sometime in the near future.)
I tell you all this to set the stage for a new essay of mine that appears in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, a long meditation on the strange—and ultimately tragic—career of Thomas Midgley Jr., the brilliant industrial chemist who managed to invent both leaded gasoline and the CFCs that eventually caused the hole in the ozone layer. It’s hard to think of a single other person who did more damage to human health and the environment, all while pursuing innovations that advanced urgent consumer needs at the time. (In the print version of the Magazine, the piece is called “The Man Who Broke The World.”) Much of the piece is devoted to two central stories: the story of how Midgley (under the supervision of Charles Kettering) came up with these two breakthroughs, and then the slow scientific detective work that unfolded over the ensuing decades that ultimately identified the scale of the damage they had done. It happens to be the centennial anniversary of the introduction of leaded gasoline (or Ethyl, as it was originally called) which is the nominal peg for the piece, but as you might imagine, the real reason to revisit Midgley’s story is the light it casts on our present choices (and their future consequences.) I write in the opening section:
Midgley’s innovations — particularly the chlorofluorocarbons — seemed like brilliant ideas at the time, but 50 years taught us otherwise. Pondering Midgley and his legacy forces us to wrestle with the core questions at the heart of “longtermism,” as the debate over long-term thinking has come to be called: What is the right time horizon for anticipating potential threats? Does focusing on speculative futures distract us from the undeniable needs of the present moment? And Midgley’s story poses a crucial question for a culture, like ours, dominated by market-driven invention: How do we best bring new things into the world when we recognize, by definition, that their long-term consequences are unknowable?
“The Man Who Broke The World” ends with a long discussion of the inherent difficulty of forecasting long-term secondary effects, with a particular emphasis on the problem of CFCs, a problem that was simply not understandable scientifically at the time Midgley was inventing Freon (the refrigerant that popularized their industrial use) in 1928. (Leaded gas was much more of a known problem at the time, and to the extent that Midgley and Kettering should be vilified for their actions, it is Ethyl that they should be blamed for, not Freon — safe refrigerants clearly saved many lives through their use in the service of food safety or vaccine cold chains, among many other applications.) I didn’t have space to get into it in the piece—it is already more than 8,000 words as is—but thinking about that kind of complex forecasting reminded me of a book that I read more than thirty years ago when I was still in grad school: David Gelernter’s 1991 Mirror Worlds, which anticipated a near-term future where all the elements of society would be modeled in a parallel digital simulation—a kind of metaverse designed not as a place for people to socialize, but rather as a tool for understanding the complex systems of human culture. Gelernter wrote in the preface to the book:
You will look into a computer screen and see reality… Some part of your world -- the town you live in, the company you work for, your school system, the city hospital -- will hang there in a sharp color image, abstract but recognizable, moving subtly in a thousand places. This mirror world you are looking at is fed by a steady rush of new data pouring in through cables. It is infiltrated by your own software creatures, doing your business…. You can see traffic density on the streets, delays at the airport, the physical conditions of the bridges, the status of markets, the condition of the city's finances, the current agenda at city hall and the board of education, crime conditions in the parks, air quality, average bulk cauliflower prices and a huge list of others.
Gelernter’s idea—which I still find captivating—was that we would use these simulations not just to figure out what was happening in the world, but also to run different scenarios of future events, not unlike the way we model complex weather phenomena. You simulate raising interest rates, or building a new high-speed rail line—or perhaps even introducing a new product based on a breakthrough in industrial chemistry—and you’d effectively press fast-forward on the simulation, and get a preview of what the long-term consequences of the intervention might be. Just as we do with weather simulations, you’d run hundreds of simulated futures in parallel to develop a forecast: instead of a 70% chance of rain, you’d build a probabilistic forecast of socio-economic events. Build a complex enough model of the world, and you might even be able to imagine your new refrigerant triggering a chain reaction in the ozone layer fifty years in the future.
At the time, Gelernter was very bullish on the feasibility of such a system. "If we had the luxury of devoting ourselves to full-time mirror-worlding,” he wrote, “we'd have a complete prototype in a year or two. One way or another, we or some other research group will almost certainly have produced a full-fledged, large-scale mirror world by the end of the decade." Thirty years later, true mirror worlds still seem like the stuff of science-fiction. But perhaps with the recent pace of development in the world of AI, you can see a plausible path to making them reality. That would be a metaverse worth inventing.
One last note on further reading. There's a lot of history covered in “The Man Who Broke The World”; if people are interested in diving deeper, I’d recommend a few books. First, there’s Toxic Truth by Lydia Denworth on the battle to prove how dangerous lead was. If you enjoyed my book Ghost Map, Lydia’s book is very much in that same “science as detective story” mode. There’s also Seth Cagin and Philip Dray's Between Earth and Sky on the invention of Freon and the discovery of the damage CFCs were causing in the ozone layer. (Out of print, I believe.) And finally there’s Sharon Bertsch McGrayne's Prometheans in the Lab, which profiles nine chemists and has an excellent chapter on Midgley.