Nelson’s knife-fork, © National Maritime Museum, London

Have you ever thought a knife-fork was a good idea? I’ll admit, I have. I don’t remember whether it was before or after I first encountered a spork that the idea to combine a fork and a knife first struck me. But I do know that after that moment, I looked on simple forks and knives with some disdain. Why was humanity wasting its time with two utensils when it could use just one? Isn’t the increased efficiency and simplicity of knife-forks obvious to all who eat?

Apparently not obvious enough. Decades later, knife-forks remain relatively rare. The problem with a knife-fork, it seems, is that it can easily cut your mouth. I expect this is why most cultures consider it rude to put a knife in one’s mouth.

Of course we could all be more conscious of our food as it enters our mouth, and indeed we should be for reasons beyond knife-forks, but we’re not. We eat with little regard to the food we’re consuming, much less the utensils we’re using to transport that food from plate to mouth. However, the mouth-cutting problem is apparently not insurmountable for knife-forks. When Horatio Nelson lost an arm in 1797, for example, paying more attention to avoid cutting his mouth must have seemed a small price to pay to avoid continuously swapping knife for fork, fork for knife, while eating a meal. So he used knife-forks.

Still, most two-armed eaters have proven unwilling to adapt eating behavior to accommodate the superior knife-fork. Alas, another brilliant idea brought down by an unreceptive society. I’ve since had many more such ideas. Men and women can share unisex bathrooms. Gender inequity: solved! Plumbing waste: solved! Rich people should give money to poor people. Poverty: solved! Abuse of power: solved! Everyone should vote for their favorite candidate. Democracy: solved! And so on.

Yes, I’ve had many knife-forks, solutions that work great as long as everyone is willing to change their behavior accordingly. But of course, these aren’t really solutions at all. Knife-forks are abstract ideas, fantasies that make us feel better about a hypothetical world in which they’re adopted, but don’t actually improve the real world in which they’re not.

Perhaps I’ve grown cynical, but where I once became excited by knife-forks, they now completely fail to excite me, and sometimes even annoy me. Some people are actually working, inventing chopsticks or something, to improve the real world, not some hypothetical world in which everyone pays more attention to their eating. And distracting them with your knife-forks hampers such progress.

Also, it’s a bit arrogant. Sure, the world would be a better place if everyone were, like me of course, willing to pay enough attention to their eating to use a knife-fork. But why should they? When presented with a world that refuses to eat with knife-forks, the humble knife-fork enthusiast asks why and starts working on a better utensil that addresses knife-fork problems. The more common arrogant knife-forker dismisses the world as inadequate to appreciate the brilliance of knife-forks.

American politicians are especially fond of knife-forks. Dennis Kucinich adamantly opposed the latest war in a Congress full of war-supporters. Now he can run for President on an "I was right" platform, even though he accomplished nothing. George Bush supported spreading democracy in a country unprepared to accept his generous gift. Now he can righteously claim democracy would have flourished if only the world had better supported his brilliant idea.

Technologists are pretty good at knife-forking as well. Every day there’s a new website that would eliminate world hunger, if only it had a million or so visitors. And the intersection of technology and politics is even better: sign my petition to demand people with real power start paying attention to internet petitions!

So now when I have great ideas (I could organize music events better than MySpace!), I try to ask myself: is this really a knife-fork? Does my great idea require people to fundamentally adjust their lives? Because if the answer is yes, it doesn’t really matter if I’ve just come up with a cure for cancer (I’ve got one too: avoid all known carcinogens). If the world doesn’t accept a great idea, it’s not a great idea. It’s just a knife-fork. Put it in the drawer, and get back to work making something the world will appreciate. Have you considered knife-chopsticks?