Today, we face forces that both divide us and join
us. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
How better to understand
technological change than to study the one change
that's engulfing us right now? What effects are the
electronic media having? A colleague recently
shifted that issue to a broader one: Two general
forces are afoot in society, she said, forces that
fragment us and forces that unify us.
Since the 19th century, public education and school
textbooks have drawn our culture together. Do you
remember The Weekly Reader in grade
school? Early network radio -- fireside chats,
Orson Welles, and the Lone Ranger drew us together
as a nation. Then network TV: Who among us didn't
hear, again and again on TV, Martin Luther King's
dream of little black children and little white
children playing together!
Yet the forces of fragmentation are growing. Public
education is giving way to splintered private
schools. Public schools are becoming bilingual.
Cable TV is offering more channels every year. We
can chase our interest in cooking, history, or
Once we tried to celebrate our diversities by
stirring them into a common pot. Now we protect and
isolate differences. Of course, we face loss either
way. We don't want to be homogenized. We don't want
to lose global community. Common experience vs.
fragmentation is becoming an essential tension of
Where do the computer networks fit in this tension?
On the nets, I speak with friends in Japan and
England, a scholar in Toronto, my far-flung
offspring, and my wife in her study. The thin wire
of a modem becomes a penstock, gushing its flood of
shared information. Surely computers are building
But they also fragment us: I'll never meet that
scholar in Toronto. My wife is on specialized
listservs for string teachers and for people
interested in creativity. My listservs deal with
issues as particular as university politics and
So: are the new media dividing us or uniting us?
Well, the answer is not simple. We and our
technologies are synergistic. We resonate and feed
one another. We become what our machines are -- we
always have. But our machines also become what we
A century ago the new automobiles began scattering
the extended family. But they also made the country
smaller and drew us together. We wanted to be
mobile and united at the same time. So cars drew us
together and, at the same time, flung us apart.
Now the electronic media give us means for enacting
more of our deepest wishes -- wishes for being sewn
into communities and wishes for isolation. How we
react to the networks depends on us -- not on ...
Oops, e-mail from my wife: "It's after 5:00," she
says. "Come home!" So, excuse me; I have to leave
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds