Today, we invent the future. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
We engineers ply a crazy
trade. We try to design the future. Yet we're quick
to criticize anyone who tries to predict the
future. So: How can you design the future without
We've seen over and over in this series that
inventions seldom work the way their inventors
expect. Edison thought his phonograph would serve
deathbed testaments. Watt said his steam engines
should not be used for transportation. People
developed the radio to replace the telegraph, not
to entertain the public.
All these inventors had some future in mind. Yet
their inventions had their own futures. They've
shaped a future that we could never predict.
A while ago, I visited the Akihabara District in
Tokyo. That's a neighborhood packed with hundreds
of electronics shops. Everything from little stalls
to huge department stores.
Those shops fairly burst with new electronic gear
-- pocket TVs, television phones, and so on. Some
of those shiny new toys drew me to them. Some
tempted me. But what would happen if one of those
devices actually entered my home? Would it carve
out a place in my life? Or would it just languish
on my shelf?
We've all bought some new engine of someone's
ingenuity that served us neither well nor long. Do
you remember eight-track tape and quadraphonic
sound? How many new kitchen appliances made far
more sense in the store than they do on your
The inventor of machines cannot design our future
alone. We consumers select our future from the
elements he gives us.
We engineers try to parlay invention. We try to
extend inventions into some foreseeable future. We
try to mold a future from the inventions we've all
chosen as consumers.
We engineers also misread the tea leaves. We shape
the short term fairly well. But then things veer
off in unexpected directions. The consumer will not
So the inventive mind does design the future after
all. It does so with a sun-spray of mutations. It
is the collective intelligence -- the collective
unconscious -- of inventor and user that designs
the future. A 19th-century inventor gave us the
typewriter to write personal letters. It took
consumers to show us that the typewriter's main
purpose would be commercial, not personal.
You might find that unsettling. But the good news
is that the future doesn't belong to the engineer,
the scientist, or the inventor. The creative
renewal of our world belongs to us all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds