Today, I'll tell you a secret. Then we'll both own
it. 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.
In 1880 half of us worked
with natural resources. We farmed, mined, logged.
Only two percent of us worked with information --
in teaching, publishing, or data management. Today
those numbers are reversed. More than half of us
now manage information.
With each new information technology, our world has
changed. Large-scale book copying changed us in AD
1200. Printing presses changed us again in 1455.
Wood-pulp paper, faster presses, and Xerox machines
have each, in turn, changed us.
Now electronic networks are intensifying the gush
of information, and change is palpable. Author
Harlan Cleveland points out several things about
the nature of that information.
Information expands. It grows as we use it.
Information is not resource-hungry. Its use
doesn't eat up much in the way of energy or natural
resources. In fact,
We can substitute information for natural
resources. Information improves efficiency and
reduces consumption. It cuts environmental costs.
Information is transportable. Megabytes flow
all over the earth at near the speed of light.
Remoteness is becoming a question of choice -- not
one of location.
Information is diffusive. It leaks and
spreads. But, information is also shareable. If I
tell you what I know, then we both know. The giver
That last one plays havoc with our
belief in zero-sum games -- with the idea we have to
balance winners with losers. The electric information
flood mocks our old notions of ownership.
Modern patent and copyright law does far less to
identify creators than to certify owners. The old
power hierarchies were all based on ownership. We'd
reached a point where it was far more profitable to
own an idea, usually someone else's, than it was to
create one. Now, as information flows, hierarchy
itself is dying out. As information flows freely,
ownership becomes empty.
For example, we've tried to protect software. Now
we begin to see the trick isn't to protect it. The
trick is to keep moving. We do far better with our
intellectual product when we leave old ideas behind
and keep our minds on the cutting edge.
So the flow of information is changing us at a far
deeper level than we realize. Knowledge was once
power. Now it's becoming freedom. If knowledge were
power, we'd have good cause to be secretive. But
secrecy isn't only becoming impossible. It's
proving dysfunctional as well. We begin to see how
much better our decisions are when we work
The new computer networks have been called the
great equalizers. Now we see why. Information
reminds us of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
It defies the old logic of conservation. In sharing
it freely, we ultimately enrich ourselves.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds