Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1452:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1452.

Today, let's talk about Luddites and techies. 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 seem to be finishing the millenium with all eyes on technology. Most of us are optimistic. Still, anti-technology stridency is rising. Listen to voices whipping up Y2K fears. Both the promise and the threat of technology are greater than they've ever been, and technology is at the center of our thoughts.

Example: Nothing can change as wondrously and rapidly as electronic communications have without calling up dark forces of social dislocation. Another example: Biological miracles have transformed agriculture and medicine. But they've also attracted the prurient interests of arms manufacturers. And they're beset by the hobgoblin of unintended side effects.

None of this is new. Once we expected dirigibles and dynamite to be so vicious as weapons that they would end war. The spinning jenny once seemed to promise the end of honest labor and starvation for workers. In hindsight we know these technologies have served the common good. But they also have disrupted society.

Yet the situation is far more extreme today because of a huge (but little known) change that took place in the nineteenth century. The Germans invented a completely new kind of organization in 1824. It was the research and development laboratory. After that, technology became the work of a new class of professionals who worked together and who expected to change the world. When they did that, the rate of technological change took off. Before this new organization, it'd taken a third of a century for steam engine efficiencies to reach twice that of a Watt engine. By now we watch the speed of computers doubling every few months.

Of course we ourselves have also changed. We've grown to rely on technological evolution. We're a lot better at assessing and absorbing new technology. We're far better critics than our great-grandparents were. Eighteenth-century observers saw new machines through very different eyes than we do. That's why Thomas Jefferson, with his incessant curiosity about new technology, was so remarkable. That's also one reason he served America so well.

In one way we still deal badly with new technology. We swing between gullibility and alarm when we deal with secondary effects. We polarize over global warming, Y2K, biological engineering, the Internet. Our search for sane ways to deal with these matters is deflected by vested interests on all sides.

Next time you hear talk of Luddites, remember that, when the original Luddites broke up textile factories two hundred years ago, it was a different world. No reasonable person today doubts that technology offers benefits and danger alike. But the rising stakes, and the rising urgency of our choices, create a whole new world of problems. We've come to the point of needing new rational means -- a new science -- for dealing with the complexity and the speed of technological change in the new millenium.

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

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Murky images in our crystal ball

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.