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
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
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
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
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