Today, a rite of passage. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
1998, was the tenth anniversary of this radio
series. That ten years of study, learning, and
writing programs has radically changed both what I
know and the way I know it. So I need to pause and
ask you to look at the epistemological riddle with
me: "How do we know what we know about the past?"
A few years back, I took pleasure in my
increasingly sure grasp of history. But with
knowledge comes doubt. As I told stories of human
creativity, the subtle complexity of those stories
grew. Every human drama began creating its own
No one can stand up to deconstruction, yet everyone
has facets of nobility. Nothing ever happened just
the way we think it did. History is storytelling,
and storytelling is always inaccurate, yet history
is nothing until we make it into a story. Separate
facts from the story they tell, and the facts will
only deceive us.
Last fall I fell into a strange vortex which helps
put this into perspective. An organization decided
they wanted to develop an Engines home
page to dress up their web site. That was agreeable
to me as long as they did the work.
As it turns out, this organization had no idea of
the magnitude of the job. Soon I was left working
80-hour weeks on nothing but the web. I had to
learn HTML, scan images, and become intimate with a
totally new medium of storytelling. All the
Engines programs to date, along with
thousands of references, links, and illustrations,
have now come to rest on our university web site.
It makes a grand resource, but it's a resource that
fits no model of information transmittal we were
raised with. The web neither duplicates nor
replaces the printed book. Rather, it gives us
means for flitting about, reading a passage here,
seeing an image there -- rapidly building a picture
in our mind.
And history's story takes shape in a new form.
We're used to stories that unfold from the printed
page. On the web, the story builds up like a
mosaic. Some tiles are false, but they soon become
obvious and we replace them with better tiles. Once
we feared the lack of control of knowledge on the
web. Now it's clear that the very intensity of
interaction roots out falsity.
In the end, we see from a different perspective and
learn different things. The web, far from replacing
the printed page, has served instead to show how
foolish it is to want to be an authority. No matter
how much we know, the web always turns up one new
fact to jar us with -- one more book to drive us
So I enter my eleventh year reminded that we all
own knowledge, and we all share in adding to the
river of understanding. The past of human
creativity emerges in all its contradiction and
complexity from that vast flood. And I take great
joy in knowing that I am no authority, but rather
one more swimmer in that glorious turbulent tide of
facts, understanding, and small glints of wisdom.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds