By Ralph Nader
In elementary school they taught us the names of inventors. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, Robert Fulton the steamboat, Alexander Graham Bell the telephone, and Thomas Alva Edison the electric light bulb. Nowadays we rarely know the names of the inventors of modern technology—think biotechnology, nanotechnology, pharmaceutical technology, safety technology. Not every breakthrough is invented by a single person, but there are still clusters of people inventing new things each year.
Over twenty years ago, my associates searched for inventors of the air bag so we could celebrate their achievements. It’s not as if the names of such inventors are not known—their names often appear in technical publications or in the U.S. Patent Office’s archives. But inventors are not featured in the popular media or in our school courses. Corporations and their brands are credited for the work of their staff.
Some may think the era of the lone inventor is over and only collectives of inventors produce most of the significant breakthroughs. But you wouldn’t know this by examining the thousands of patents issued every month (see Patent Gazette). Lone inventors— inventors who are not attached to a company or other organization – are only represented in some of these patents. Many more, however, are employees who have to give their rights to institutions. Getting patents is extremely expensive for lone inventors.
Let’s focus on the anonymous people who invent or design things that increase our misery/anxiety/ripoff index. I’d want to know who designs those incomprehensible computerized bills that flood and so often defraud consumers from all sorts of sellers. Who creates those maddening forms that millions of Americans have to figure out and fill out?
Who drafts those demonic fine print one-sided standard form contracts that handcuff millions of American consumers—be they borrowers, home buyers, tenants, car buyers, insurance purchasers, or those Internet clickers who “agree” to “terms and conditions” they never read (see faircontracts.org).
Let’s call this situation what it is—contract servitude or contract peonage. There is, in fact, one prominent Philadelphia corporate lawyer who is the kingpin of this consumer contract abuse—Alan Kaplinsky of Ballard Spahr LLP. As Kaplinsky goes around the country, he exudes pride in fostering these “mice print” form contracts that enchain millions of people and leave them defenseless before big, bullying corporations. So voilà —we’ve located one antihero.
Then there are the wordsmiths who create those form “No” letters replying to consumers who complain about being dealt with unfairly or overcharged. Back comes these long slimy “No” letters full of smooth verbiage that evade the issues while faking a response to consumer complaints. Corporate and government bureaucrats are really experts at such “No” letters designed to wear you down so you don’t even make a second attempt to solve a problem. Who are the creators of such verbal naysaying?
A recent innovation is letters, unsigned by any human being, from corporations and big institutions demanding a person respond. A pension plan writes its pensioners every year requiring a form to be filled out confirming monthly receipt of payments and that the correct amount was being paid. Not sending in the form on time, the pensioners were advised, could result in suspension of payments due. Signed by the impersonal Pension Plan, not by an accountable human being who can be told—check your cancelled checks for heaven’s sake. Why are you bothering us?
Who in the U.S. invents and manufactures those huge bombs or those deadly cluster bombs that are illegally sent over to Yemen to kill and injure innocent children, women, and men in that war-torn, starving country? Who designs those deceptive, sugary television ads to get the little ones to take their path to obesity and related sicknesses?
The names of those who are culpable are anonymous, except for occasional tort lawsuits or whistleblowing that outs them.
In a world full of Facebooks, Googles, Amazons, Microsofts, credit rating bureaus, and ever more, your name and just about everything these snoopers can know about you are sold to their advertisers and others.
Who are the backroom mathematicians and electrical engineers who create and implement these algorithms that are taking over people’s lives everywhere?
Who are the creators of those Wall Street multi-tiered derivatives that speculate with and often lose other peoples’ money as in the giant financial crash of 2008? These towers of bubbling derivatives are so complex fewer people understand them than understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. Who are these geniuses of such high-stake gambling?
Let’s demand the creators of injustice, mayhem, irritation, and the waves of anxiety, fear, and dread reveal their names. Huge numbers of real humans, who cannot hide behind anonymity and who end up paying their bills by name, deserve to know the names of their tormentors.