Our answer begins on a beach in communist Romania. The year is 1977, and one Alfred Natrasevschi is showing every outward sign of enjoying a relaxing day on the shores of the Black Sea. However, when Natrasevschi entered the water that day and ducked beneath the waves, he didn’t resurface until nightfall, at which point, using an inflatable raft hidden in his beach toy, he had paddled 12 miles to international waters, and freedom. Thus begins one of the great untold stories of American enterprise. For it was Natrasevschi, years later, who would quit his job at Hewlett-Packard to challenge one of the world’s oldest and most robust taboos. Natrasevschi’s invention was the RoboCut; it and the more notorious Flowbee, the brainchild of a carpenter from San Diego, bestrode the world of late 1980s TV infomercials like the Beatles and the Stones did the world of popular music in the early 1960s. The two devices were roughly similar in design—both sucked hair into a vacuum tube, snipped it with internal blades at a precise and controllable length, then sucked away the clippings—but they were fully indistinguishable in purpose: to put into the hands of the common man a power hitherto known only to trained professionals, that of cutting human hair.
Indeed, the world of coiffure is now entirely changed. More people than ever before are cutting their own hair—not just George Clooney and this correspondent but also Julia Stiles. But it has nothing to do with either the Flowbee or the RoboCut. Because the secret of cutting your own hair, I discovered after typing “how cut own hair” into Google and twiddling my thumbs for 0.08 seconds, is just to cut it, with a pair of scissors. First, you moisten the hair, which makes the individual hairs cohere into manageable strands. Second, using scissors, you snip off all those sections the presence of which were what convinced you that you needed a haircut in the first place.
Google is exceptionally useful for finding out this kind of information. In the last week I’ve also used it to learn how to make pasta out of stinging nettles and to solder new capacitors into a vintage Vox guitar amp, despite not knowing either how to solder or what a capacitor is. Even as a child in the 1970s, I’m sure I could have punted my proto-skateboard to the library and self-tutored on any of the aforementioned topics—but I didn’t. I wouldn’t have dared. By my understanding, the world of appliance repair, cooking with low-grade poisons, or attempting to cut hair was demonstrably the province of experts.
The Internet has now entirely inverted the criteria by which we assign value to information. In the old world, the knowledge most highly prized was the knowledge that was hardest to get. The truly powerful and transformative ideas were assumed to be the ones you learned only from a six-year stint at an Ivy League medical school, or after climbing a Himalaya to consult some sort of nude cross-legged yogi.
These days, it’s the reverse. The ideas we prize the highest are the ones that are easiest to access. If an idea or a tip or a secret of life hasn’t yet found its way to the Internet, we now assume there must be something wrong with it, and most of the time we’re right. Of those ideas that have found their way to the Internet, we trust the ones listed on the first page of our Google search more than the ones on page 11, because their prominence reflects their popularity, and their popularity, we assume, reflects their usefulness.
All of which has made these uncomfortable years for the once-venerated figure of the Expert. We are no longer intimidated by his alleged treasure trove of arcane secrets, the ones he accrued by years of study and herculean sacrifice. So it is, for better or worse, with Science. We still respect our scientists, and still defer to their expertise on matters of theory or about which we have no interest. But we also—all of a sudden—feel entirely free to get involved whenever we feel like it. We’ve seen the upside of this in the sudden growth of private space exploration. There was never any law saying random billionaires couldn’t build their own rockets to the moon; it was just that during the heyday of the Expert, such a feat, like cutting both sides of your hair symmetrically, was assumed to be out of the layman’s reach. And we’ve seen the downside in the explosion of junk and/or populist science over the last 10 years. Anyone who’s ever channel surfed onto Fox News during one of the frequent occasions when a talking head attempts to prove the existence of God by his own amateur debunking of the Big Bang knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Where this will all end up is by no means clear, but I find it hard to be pessimistic. A world in which everyone felt entitled to his own scientific method and his own scientific facts would be a very unhappy world indeed. But I don’t think that human nature could ever allow such unchecked relativism. For Science, like cutting your own hair, is indivisible from its own self-correcting mechanism. When we don’t get it right—as I, now that I look at it, have not gotten it right, not quite—the urge to fix our mistakes becomes overpowering.
As for the Flowbee and the RoboCut, both devices are still available. Although their value has been diminished by the Internet, they may be worth purchasing, if only as relics of the days when to defy the tyrannical figure of the trained barber seemed to require some sort of invention to compensate for his “expertise.” But do take care. While researching this piece, I happened to visit eBay and was arrested by five of the most poignant words in the English language:
“RoboCut haircutting system—Used Once.”