Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1749:
DIFFUSION OF GENEROSITY

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the diffusion of generosity. 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.

This morning I went to a thank-you breakfast for a group of generous supporters of our radio station. That occasion set me to thinking about the term grass roots. For all its recent political use, the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, defines it merely as "The fundamental level; the source or origin."

The oldest use, quoted in the OED, comes from 1901, when Rudyard Kipling wrote, "Not till I came to Shamlegh could I ... trace the running grass roots of Evil." But Good, as well as Evil, has its grass roots. And, as I follow the threads of human creativity, I find a related idea rising again and again.

It is the concept of downward diffusion of function. For example, the first electric motors were built large. They were used to replace the big central steam-power plants that'd once driven the spider's web of belts and pulleys that ran through old factories and drove all the individual lathes, looms, or whatever.

It took about thirty years for us to realize that, if we strung thin electric wires through the plant, we could put individual motors on each machine and have far greater flexibility. The resulting factory organization can do more, retool more quickly, waste less energy, and achieve greater production.

That drama plays out all around us, and it's at the heart of a new branch of math called complexity theory -- all about very complex behavior that wells up from large sets of simple elements.

Take, for example, an anthill. Each ant has very limited intellect, but the aggregate behavior of many ants, acting in parallel with one another, is complex and multifunctional.

This is not obedience or even simple cooperation. It is, instead, the result of information transfer and self-correcting feedback processes. It is also something that we humans have to relearn, again and again. We prattle endlessly about leadership and pulling together. But you and I really achieve something when we seek the common good in parallel with one another, even as we disagree and bicker.

Two enterprises (which really are two faces of the same coin) particularly display how this works. They are: education and Public Radio. The best schools (at any level) operate like an anthill with no central leadership. Rather, individual teachers, communicating with one another and influencing one another, work to make learning happen. Then education is complex and effective.

That's how it is with Public Radio: Few other human enterprises so perfectly embody parallel processing, downward diffusion, and grass-roots energy. Spend any time in your radio station and you'll see it: employees, volunteers, and the tangible presence of very individual contributors, all shaping an extremely complex symphony of information flow -- music, words, and the synergistic presence of the surrounding community. It is a wonderful thing.

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

(Theme music)


I am grateful to Edward Hugetz, Associate Vice President for Planning and University Outreach, and Martin Golubitsky, Mathematics, both at the University of Houston, for technical counsel on this episode. For more on these ideas, see Episodes 503 and 1114.

The parts and the whole

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.