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