What are the most significant human inventions? by Martin Sandbrook

This may surprise you, but, in my view, one of the most significant human inventions is not something electrical or mechanical. It is glass.

I expect you will want to think about that for a moment, so, while you do, I’ll say a bit more.

Sometimes, on Schumacher Institute systems thinking courses, I ask “What is glass?”. The answer often comes back: “sand”. This answer, what glass is made of, comes from a particular way of seeing the world – the scientific. Science is mostly reductionist in approach, taking things to pieces to understand them. This can of course be very beneficial, especially if you want to know how to make something.

But knowing what glass is made of doesn’t tell you about its systemic quality, its emergent property. What is it that you get, what emerges, when glass is formed and used? One property which emerges is that glass forms a barrier. Another is that it is almost invisible.

Which brings me back to my starting point, about how significant an invention glass is. In trying to capture its amazingness, I find it difficult to do justice to it, but the main property of glass is that is puts a shield between us and the world beyond it, while still allowing us to see the world beyond it, even if we can’t hear, touch, smell or feel it.

It might be worth reminding ourselves of some of the things glass makes possible. Glass is an essential feature of virtually all buildings. Without glass, cars, trains and aeroplanes would be very different, if they could work at all. Glass sits on the front of our ‘windows onto the digital world’ – computers, phones, TVs. Glass makes lenses – cameras, microscopes, spectacles – essential for many of us to be able to see at all. Light-bulbs are glass.  In short, glass is everywhere, an essential component of modern life. But we are barely aware of its presence, which is hardly surprising, when our main requirement of glass is that it be invisible.

Glass has other consequences. It cuts us off. It gives precedence to our visual sense, cocooning us from the harsh elements of nature, the wind, cold and rain. It frames things, often making our world rectangular. If offers us metaphorical windows. For example, I believe glass shapes the way we view nature, as if through the window, sanitising it, especially if digitally enhanced.

Glass is also a key player in many of our systems, especially as it so often forms a boundary, but a boundary where a relationship to what lies beyond can be maintained, at least visually.

So glass becomes a metaphor for the nature of system boundaries – there, but not there; a boundary which encloses the elements you have chosen to include in your system, while being the point of relationship with the elements you have chosen not to include.

Glass has a profound impact on our lives and on our worldview. The important thing, in systems terms, is not to let it be invisible, or lose sight of the role it is playing.

Martin Sandbrook is a Director of the Schumacher Institute and Programme Leader for Systems Thinking for Effective Action and Pale Blue Dot