Today, information flows like water. 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.
Let's think about the hydraulics of information:
We all know that water seeks its level. Remember how Hurricane Katrina breached
the Pontchartrain levees and water flowed everywhere. Water is contained, both
naturally and artificially, all around us -- in lakes and rivers, reservoirs and
tanks. And, every time containment breaks down, water flows outward and downward.
That's how information flows. A kind of gravitational force draws it toward our
minds while barriers separate us from it. A lake might lie in the hills above us.
But, to use its water, we must first build an aqueduct. Likewise, information
doesn't just flow into our heads from a library. We have to go to it. We need
to use the catalog. We need to be able to read. And so on.
Secrecy can be a barrier to information. But, like a dam, it need only be
punctured once. Think about the WikiLeaks scandal. For all the handwringing,
what did we learn? That diplomats swap embarrassing gossip? That some bankers
engage in shady practices? Damage was done, no doubt, but far less than we'd
expected, because there were so few surprises. Among so many barriers to the
flow of information, secrecy is a pretty flimsy one.
The greater barrier is the effort needed to gain common information. People email
me daily, wanting want more information about this or that. I send them a book
title and am told, politely, that they wanted an Internet site. I once could
sniff self-righteously at that. But no more. The content of the Internet is
expanding like a blast front. We're reaching a tipping point where, even among
scholars, it becomes the court of first resort.
Even simple human concourse is a kind of information transfer. Our neighborhood
is an amicable place, though we go our own ways. Then Hurricane Ike struck and
we all suffered damage and outages. Trouble drove us into the street where we
socialized, exchanged help and shared ourselves. The flow of water and information
strangely became one. Ike breached the information flow barriers created by our
That event helped me better understand the flurry of grass-roots revolutions in
the Middle East, after the social media reached a tipping point. Populations
with common needs were now drawn together by yet another breakdown of information
I think we're seeing something even beyond an information revolution. This looks
like a revolution of human consciousness comparable to that brought on by the
invention of alphabetic writing. We're being changed in a profound way by
floodtides of facts.
Even the last ultimate information dam is breaking down -- our own need to be
experts. To receive information we must acknowledge some level of ignorance.
I see even that constraint of pride crumbling in the wash of Internet information.
And, once it goes, we truly are poised to swim in a common sea of understanding.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on the alphabet and consciousness, see
Photos by J. Lienhard