Today, the horizontal society. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The New York Times
is usually pretty tricky by the third Sunday of the
month, but not this time. All the clues had to do
with science. When I'd finished, it gave me the
following quote from Lawrence Friedman's book,
The Horizontal Society:
The average citizen who has no idea how a
refrigerator works still feels that scientists, if
they worked hard enough, could cure the common cold
or get power out of turnip juice or send a
satellite zooming off to Pluto.
All those things should indeed be doable, although
they'll be the work of engineers and doctors, as
much as scientists. And, whatever we send zooming
off to Pluto won't be a satellite since it'll no
longer orbit Earth. But nevermind that. Where
Friedman is headed is intriguing and it's
He observes that political power, which
once flowed vertically, now flows horizontally, and
the growth of mass media has been a major force in
bringing this state of affairs about.
Power once flowed downward from king to serf. You
looked up and down a chain of command as you
carried out your daily business. Today, we look to
our peers for the signposts that guide our actions.
We tell one another that any of us can make a
difference and that any child can grow up to be
Friedman points out that, when Hitler tried to
place himself on top of a vertical flow of power,
his first order of business had to be controlling
the horizontal flow of information. People still
try to claim vertical power, but they're
increasingly thwarted by the mercurial, liquid, and
near-instantaneous, flow of information.
The relevance of that acrostic puzzle [quotation] is
that technology itself is a form of mass media.
Look at the automobile: It's become a powerful part
of our agreed-upon culture. We rightly regard
ourselves as co-owners of that technology. As a
physical object, the automobile gives us freedom of
horizontal movement. Almost all of us know
something about its technology and operation. And
we embrace it as an icon that reflects who and what
we are. It represents the good in us — efficacy,
physical beauty, and a kind of buoyancy of spirit.
It represents the bad as well — pollution, danger,
But the automobile is also emblematic of our
ability to create and build. Whether as designers,
or users, we all share in its creation. And so,
Friedman tells us, a part of our modern
horizontalness is that we no longer wait upon kings
and satraps to build a better world. We expect no
less from one another.
Our shared enterprise of technology thus becomes a
means of communication in which we tell each other
just what this world might actually be. We really
will figure out how to get power from turnip juice
— by cold fusion or atomic fission. If I can't
figure it out, well — you can. (Though I
do remain bothered by that satellite flying away to
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
I refer here to the New York Times acrostic puzzle
for Sept. 21, 2003.
L. M. Friedman,
The Horizontal Society,
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
For more on the Automobile as a technology of the
horizontal society, see J. H. Lienhard, Inventing
Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and
Tailfins, New York: Oxford University Press,
2003, see especially Chapters 8, 9, and 15.