Monday, June 22, 2009

Our rock stars aren't like your rock stars

Think of the last time you saw something and exclaimed out loud, “That’s ingenious!”

I do this every so often, though I tend to use the word “brilliant” instead of “ingenious” (many thanks to Dr. Who, Harry Potter, Merlin, Primeval, and all other quality media imports from The Island). I said it about swipe-able, refillable parking meter cards. I said it about, more than once. I said it somewhat tongue-in-cheek about the first set of oncoming xenon-powered headlights that half-blinded me into nearly causing a 14-car pileup (Get it, brilliant? Lights?). I said it about various Pampered Chef dry and wet measure products. And I even said it about disposable toilet seat covers.

There’s a UNCF commercial on TV today that promotes minority education by showing many of the ingenious inventions that “started as ideas from the minds of African Americans,” and concludes by saying, "support minority education today so we don't miss out on the next big idea tomorrow." I have done absolutely no due diligence to verify who actually invented any of these things. The inventions in the commercial include the traffic light, the elevator up-down indicator lights, the lawnmower, and other such integral parts of our infrastructure and daily lifestyle.

I reacted badly to this commercial, mostly because the music is annoying. Really annoying. Especially when you’re watching a few shows on Hulu, and the same commercial plays during Every. Single. Commercial break. Also, I haven’t seen any commercials about the amazing things that “come from the minds of silver-spooned WASP DINKs,” so it seemed a little bit like a one-sided campaign. As such, my first reaction was to be annoyed that the commercial seemed to imply that without the black men and women who invented these things, their inventions simply would not exist, and that we would miss out on future discoveries.

I calmed myself down by reminding myself that although educational opportunities are not equal across racial barriers, inventing something is about seeing a need for something and filling that need, and therefore has somewhat less to do with race and more to do with motivation. Take away someone who invented something, and eventually, somebody else, whatever race they are, will invent something that meets the same needs (assuming the needs are real).

But something about the commercial still bugged me. It took me a while to figure out: I thought it was trying to say that everything important that has been invented recently was invented by an African American. If you watch it, you'll see that it obviously wasn't trying to say that, but from that mindset, I perceived something pretty ironic embedded in the commercial. Yes, an African American invented the stop light. Yes, stop lights are extremely important. But how about the car? Electricity, perhaps? Yeeeeeaaaaaah.

Yes to the elevator indicator lights. How about the elevator? Yes to the lawnmower. What about grass? (Okay, in fairness, that one goes to God.)

Now let me be clear about something: no matter what race or gender an inventor is, they’re all more innovative than I am. Had all the earth’s invention been up to me, I would have found a way to slap together the internet (complete with Hulu, Amazon, Pandora, and online banking), while mowing the lawn with a large pair of scissors.

If you're a geek, then my post doesn't end there; rather, there is still one more invention-related commercial that you should see. It’s the Intel commercial set in a break room with a handful of Intel employees that go all star-struck when Ajay Bhatt, co-inventor of the USB, walks into the room in slow-mo, to some truly inspired guitar riffs. He humbly signs someone’s laptop while attempting to eschew the praise being heaped upon him (including his co-workers / fans showing off Ajay Bhatt t-shirts and notebook scrawlings). The first time I saw that commercial, and realized that they had just showed me an actor playing one of the men who is partially responsible for my being able to back up my entire hard drive in under two hours to a device that costs less than tickets to a U2 concert, I not only cheered out loud, I also nearly peed my pants.

The commercial concludes with the extraordinarily profound statement, “Our rock stars aren’t like your rock stars.”

That’s brilliant.

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