Since March 11, a 2 minute, 4 second rap smackdown pitting eccentric genius Nikola Tesla against more mercantile electric genius Thomas Edison has gotten 13,952,858 people to watch it (as of the time of this writing). Not bad for a feud that reached its peak in 1897. Tesla, though, hated to waste time—even for sleep—so he probably would not have approved of the 474,397 hours the world’s collective eyeballs have spent watching this video alone. Nor of the electrical use—5,692.7 kilowatt hours of electricity used by YouTube’s servers, or approximately enough to power an American household for six months in 2011. In 1943, the year of Tesla’s death, the average American household’s annual electricity consumption was 828kwh, less than we now use in just a month—in Tesla time, the rap smackdown (assuming viewers watched the entire thing) has accounted for nearly seven year’s worth of electricity.
In reality, technology isn’t shaped by one guy who had one great idea and changed the world.
Tesla, though, had some sense of the pleasures and risks of diversion. In this amazing and head-exploding 1900 article in favor of world peace, the elimination of hunger, and the development of wind, solar, and geothermal power, he wrote: “[T]he cheering lights of science and art, ever increasing in intensity, illuminate our path, and the marvels they disclose, and the enjoyments they offer, make us measurably forgetful of the gloomy future.” Tesla, of course, was talking about mortality, not climate change.
Anyway, Edison vs. Tesla is a poor dichotomy for understanding the world, or technological progress. It’s time to let go of the paradigm of great men, says Paleofuture’s Matt Novak in this conversation with BoingBoing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker. Whether you think Tesla > Edison or Edison > Tesla, Novak says you’re missing something important. In reality, technology isn’t shaped by one guy who had one great idea and changed the world. Instead, it’s a messy process, full of flat-out failures and not-quite-successes, and populated by many great minds who build off of and are inspired by each other’s work.