Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1410:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1410.

Today, a chicken-and-egg question. 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.

Do our minds drive technology, or does technology drive our minds? Suppose you're an alien looking at Earth for the first time. You'd surely seek to know us by looking at our machines. That's what anthropologists do when they look at the alien skeletons of our ancient forbears. If an ape skull is to be called human, the area around it must show evidence of serious tool-making.

The very word technology helps us understand this process. The Greek word tecnh (pronounced techne) describes art and skill in making things. Tecnh is the work of a sculptor or a stonemason, a composer or a clock-maker. Ology is the study or the lore of something. Technology is the knowledge of making things. Some argue that we shouldn't call our species Homo sapiens or the-wise-people, but rather Homo technologicus or they-who-use-tecnh, for that is who we are.

We freed our hands by walking on our hind legs before we took up tool-making. When we made our earliest stone tools 2.4 million years ago, our brains were still fairly small. Our capacity for thought began growing after we began making sophisticated implements. Thinking and tool-making are wed to one another.

The idea that technology drives our minds is disquieting. Shouldn't it be the other way around? After all, we teach people to be engineers -- to set the course of technology. Yet what person would've been clever enough to invent, say, a PC? Who did invent the computer on your desk? Why, nobody did. It invented itself! Step by step it revealed its potential; it exposed one more possibility that this or that person recognized and completed.

One Christmas, years ago, we gave a primitive Commodore home computer to our then 15-year-old son. He vanished into his room for two weeks and emerged, appropriately enough, about Epiphany-tide -- able to program in Basic. Who taught him? Well, the computer did, and he came out of his room changed. We're all shaped by a two-fold inheritance -- one genetic, the other cultural. The lore of making and using implements is the primary element in our cultural heritage. The tools and machines around us enfold and instruct us from birth to death.

So I'm hardly guilty of hyperbole at all when I say that the computer invented itself. We instinctively build machines to resonate with us. The technologies of writing and printing each altered the way we see the world. Each opened our eyes to expanded possibilities. Each profoundly changed our civilization.

Automobiles led to things that never crossed their inventors' minds -- to highway systems and the redefinition of cities. Telephones altered the texture of human interaction. We really do enter into symbiotic relationships with our machines. Inanimate as they are, we ourselves are built into them. And what we're interacting with is not metal and plastic after all. When we interact with our machines, we really do interact with one another.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

This is a greatly revised version of old Episode 16.

Photo by John Lienhard

Representation of early tool-maker Homo Habilis
from some 1.5 million years ago (from the University
of New Mexico Anthropological Museum)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.