TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATION
by John H. Lienhard
Today, technology has something to tell us. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Technology is communication.
That fact reveals itself in many ways. Modern humans
arose in Africa just over a hundred thousand years
ago with a capacity for articulate speech far beyond
any other species. They honed that ability at the
same time they brought about a great explosion of art
and technology. The prime legacy of modern humans was
Language and technology remain far more
interwoven than we might think. Suppose we want to
tell a friend how to go from Houston to Detroit. We
could write out the sequence of roads and turns she'd
take to get there. We might prepare a map. Or we
could do something more abstract -- tell her what it
feels like to drive to Detroit, about the
ride and the sights one sees along the way.
The engineers in Detroit have another way of
describing the trip. They design the machine we use
to make it. They create the experience of the trip --
give it its form and texture. These engineers use the
automobile to tell us their own concept of what that
experience should be. The feel of it, the sense of
motion, the beauty of the auto, the way the car takes
part in our lives and shapes us. These are all things
that the designer consciously says to us in a
remarkably efficient and compact way.
This was impressed on me some years back when my wife
and I found a prefab furniture item we needed. The
box had been damaged by a forklift, and the as-is
price was next to nothing. It was a big, complicated
item, with ten pages of assembly instructions.
This was no job for sissies. But when we opened the
box, the instructions were gone. Thirty precut pieces
of wood, a couple hundred metal and plastic fittings,
and no instructions.
At first I was devastated. Then I realized I could
consult the designer directly. I simply
looked at the parts and listened to the clear logic
they represented. Why was this piece notched and
drilled just so? Why did some fittings have little
ribs while others didn't? In the end, I was relieved
of the tedious intermediary of written instructions.
When I worked from inside the designer's head, the
whole thing went together smoothly. I walked away
with a real respect for this anonymous person whose
essential sense of simplicity and elegance I had come
to know intimately.
We're perfectly happy to acknowledge other nonverbal
forms of communication -- pictures, music, body
language -- before we acknowledge technology. Yet
technology is the largest such presence in our lives,
and it speaks to us with powerful clarity and
Poor technology might well speak of venality and
greed. Good technology speaks of beauty, form, and
order. That's because the most effective makers and
builders of things are not driven by fame or gain.
They are driven by the need to share the
vision that's formed in their minds. That was true in
the Stone Age, and it remains absolutely true today.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 187.