Today, thoughts about
Thorstein Veblen and the information age. 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.
Thorstein Veblen graduated
from Minnesota's Carleton College in 1880 -- a few
years ahead of my grandmother. I was raised in a
conservative Minnesota family and my smart
grandmother provided leftish leaven to my
upbringing. As for Veblen, well, I carried his
book, The Theory of the Leisure Class,
off to the army with me.
I arrived at Fort Monmouth just as Joe McCarthy
accused the fort of Communist leanings. We were
allowed to display one book in our foot locker,
presumably something morally uplifting. I expressed
my moral outrage at McCarthy by displaying Veblen's
That small gesture frightened many people around
me. Veblen was near enough to Marx to be dangerous.
Worse yet, he'd taught at Stanford and Chicago, two
schools McCarthy labeled pro-Communist.
Veblen believed technology lay at the heart of
society. The bad guys were manipulators of money
who produced neither material goods nor the ideas
behind them -- people who practiced what he called
"conspicuous consumption." As I read Veblen and
prepared for a teaching career, I worried. Would I
really contribute to the world's well-being by
teaching engineering instead of practicing it, or
was I just fooling myself? Veblen became my
Of course the word technology means the knowledge
of technique and materiel. Veblen was clearer on
that point than we are. Today the fastest growing
technologies are those of information handling in
its many forms. In other words, technology has
become the immaterial handling of immaterial
Information is now replacing materiel and labor.
For example, today's jet planes look just like they
did forty years ago. You'd think the technology was
static. But those planes use only half the fuel
they once did. That's because sophisticated
computers very precisely manage engine performance
and flight plans.
The availability of material fuel has been
effectively doubled by the manipulation of
immaterial information. With computers handling
ticket sales and flight scheduling, most planes fly
more nearly full. That too yields huge savings in
As we close-couple factories to retail outlets,
warehousing and waste are reduced. I expect movies
served over TV cable lines will replace video
cassettes before long. Everywhere we turn, the new
information media are reducing the amount of
materiel and labor we need. Knowledge literally
serves in their place.
And Veblen's ghost hovers over all this change.
Capital is still as damaging as ever when it's
separated from technology -- material or
immaterial. Capitalists who turn a blind eye to
what their money does remain a destructive force.
But capital is also a form of information about
goods and services. And when it is wielded by
people who care about the common good, it too
serves us -- as surely as any other information
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds