Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2196:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the future is among 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 created them.

I've said many times that we cannot predict the future; we can only create the future. And that we are doing. When these broadcasts began in 1988, the Internet barely existed. A few hi-tech university friends were swapping messages on the old BITNET system.

By 1992, I was using Internet email, which displaced BITNET. Five years later, all my scripts went to the Internet and, quite abruptly, I had to master the mechanics of running a huge website. Just a few more years and the site had full audio. In 2006, NPR chose the program to be part of its new PodCast system.

But the fun was only beginning. People have asked what'll become of history in an electronic world. Well, we're starting to see. When I first recorded scripts in, I gave no thought to any lasting record of what I said. Now, every word, written or spoken, remains available to anyone in the world.

Now I work with far greater care, and I try to steer people away from those early episodes. A mispronounced word was once a small embarrassment -- soon forgotten. Now it hangs about my neck like an albatross. In a paper world, yesterday's words were soon forgotten. They no longer are.

Along with retaining information, is the upheaval in the age-old problem of finding information. Knowledge was once costly. It took time to find something in an encyclopedia -- even more time to track it down in a book. Suppose that we try to remember a few lines from a poem about Grantchester. A few keystrokes, and there's Rupert Brooke's poem. He, in turn, asks us to hear

the cool lapse of hours pass
until the centuries blend and blur
in Grantchester, in Grantchester.

How often we would like to be once more "flower-lulled in sleepy grass" in some fading other-world. But the future of that world is already here. If we should lie again beside Brooke's stream "green as a dream and deep as death" it'll be in this world, not in his. And the great agent of change is not just some electronic arrangement. It's a whole broken dike -- the dike which, through all human history, held information at bay.

The end, now in sight, is one where all have access to all facts. And that's no future prediction -- because the shape of that world remains unknowable. Perhaps knowledge will be the great equalizer; perhaps it'll just give tyranny some new form.

And what of education? A vast part of education has always been building up our knowledge base. Now it shifts to the use of knowledge. But how can we use facts that do not live in our heads? Creativity is all about connecting canonically-unrelated facts. How will we do that when facts live in circuits outside our mind?

So you and I try to know a future that already walks among us. The question never was, What'll the new technology be? The question has always been, What will the new technology make of us?

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

(Theme music)

I've been drawn back to this topic over the years since change has been so inexorable. See, e.g., Episodes 1954 (from 2004), 1352 and 1374 (from 1998), 949 and 992 (from 1994), and 723 and 788 (from 1992-3).

This might seem impressive in 2007,
20,000 books on a keychain

But we're now near to reaching all known information from the cell phone in our pocket:
The Internet on a cell phone
(Upper image is a scan. Lower photo by Alex Faranis)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.