Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1548:
MENTOR/SERVANT/MIRROR

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1548.

Today, two technologies define their turf. 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.

In other programs, I talk about the machine as metaphor. Any technology is a mirror of our own selves. It has to reflect everything from our physical makeup to our complex psychological needs. If it doesn't, we ignore it. We refuse to take it into our lives.

As the Internet and print go toe to toe, each hones and refines its metaphorical place in our lives. Of the two, the book is far more advanced. After all, it's had a head start of over two thousand years. If it looks simpler, that's just because it's more finely tuned. Everything unnecessary has been dropped. It has an elegance that our electronic systems won't reach for some time.

But both technologies are with us in perpetuity. Neither is going away. And each has solidly established its metaphorical role. The computer is there to serve us -- to do our bidding. The book is there as our guide and teacher. Try to mix those roles and we'll fail. Books are mentors. Computers are servants. Don't even think about making one into the other. That issue looms large as the computer enters our classrooms. We talk about classes on line, about distance education, about teacherless learning.

So which of these systems is possible? Well, they're all possible, but our initial assumptions about any new system are inevitably wrong. As an analogy, take digital watches. Digital watches were the big thing in the 1980s. But they violated the metaphor of the sundial -- a metaphor that's inbred in our collective psyches. By now, most of us have given them up and gone back to analog faces. Still, digital readout does serve us better in a few places.

Our bedside clock has only one purpose. It's there to tell us when to get up. We want it to tell us whether it's before or after 6:30 AM, and a digital readout is better for that job. Your wristwatch, on the other hand, is there to see you through the long day. You and I want to see this particular hour in relation to all the other hours. Our watches do what sundials do. They display the sun circling through the heavens. They show our day unfolding around us. And that's not the sort of thing designers think to write into specifications.

I recently visited a distance-education meeting. I saw lots of good stuff and just as many failures-in-the-making. Take the online course: Without human teachers, knowledge is objectified -- broken into bullet entries and single sentences. No essay questions, no open-ended problems, just answers without there ever having been a question. It was learning without narrative -- a servant providing sequential facts -- the computer reasserting its essential nature.

In another generation, we'll have decided what part of education belongs to servants and what part must stay with mentors. The turf of the electronic media will be staked out. But that won't happen until we've made all the mistakes -- until we've been blind-sided by all the subtle metaphors that attend any new technology.

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

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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H. Lienhard.