Today, we look for needles in the haystack of a
brave new world. 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.
We're told we live in an
information age. That's entirely true but very easy
to misinterpret. The library head at a Big Ten
university recently announced that, by the turn of
the century, 98 percent of new written material
would come out in electronic form. A New
Yorker cartoon makes a fine mockery of that.
It shows a man and woman at a cocktail party,
trying to impress each other. "No," he says, "I
haven't read it yet, but I've downloaded it from
the Internet." The flood of electronic information
rises far faster than we can absorb it. And we
often do print what we've found on to paper before
we read it.
Yesterday, I logged on to the Internet. I'd heard I
could find out if a book I was interested in was
still in print. The Internet offered me a menu of
13 choices. I chose one. It led to a second menu
that offered 9 choices. As I continued, I reached
15 successive menus. They offered from 4 to 43
choices each. The 16th screen gave me an e-mail
address from which I could've downloaded a catalog
-- and then, I suppose, read it on paper.
So I calculated the odds of making that sequence of
choices randomly. I would've had one chance in 12.5
quadrillion. The only reason I found the source was
that I'd been given instructions for most of the
steps. The menus alone were not nearly informative
enough to steer me to such a distant goal.
We're going through one of the great technological
shifts of all time. Two processes operate during
such a revolution. The first is that we begin by
missing the point and failing to use the new
technologies effectively. The Internet is still
like a great big world-wide phone book -- organized
by local street names.
The second process is that we try to replace too
much with the new technology. In the early 19th
century we began replacing our water wheels with
steam power. Then we realized that water power was
free -- no fuel costs. Once we did the sums, we
often wound up tearing out steam engines and going
back to water power.
Now we're organizing our institutions as though
paper were going out of style. Meanwhile the
electronic flow of information is actually creating
a precipitous increase in the amount of paper we
consume -- and book sales are rising.
We watch both processes going on around us. We try
to write for computer screens the way we've always
written for paper. And we assume electronics will
replace, rather than supplement, media that're too
deeply rooted in our psyches to be replaced.
We ourselves offer you any free
Engines script by e-mail. Just send
your request to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can find it
on the World-Wide Web at
www.uh.edu/engines/engines.html. The catch is:
You'll almost surely download it on to paper --
before you read it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds