Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 173:

by John H. H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 173.

Today, a new machine in your life. 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.

I've said a lot about the way machines touch our lives. We've watched one device after another change us. Machines extend our reach, they take us where our legs cannot, they amplify our voices -- they even give us wings.

I talk about machines extending our bodies, because that's the way they touch us so powerfully. But replacing our legs with an automobile or our backs with a forklift is nothing compared to what computers do. They sit right beside our brains -- they assume a kind of partnership practically inside our heads. Our relations with machines have always been awfully personal, but with our computers they're terrifyingly so. Just how personal, recently came home to me in a very real way.

For five years I've written everything on a word processor -- papers, talks, letters, and two books -- well over a million words of finished copy and several times that in discarded drafts. Imagine, if you can, my intimacy with that now-obsolete machine. It's held my thoughts and given them back to me.

Now I have a flashy new computer, and it's working diligently to reshape my mind. It has ten times the memory of the old machine, 200 times the storage capacity, and a colorful new screen. It thinks with blinding speed. It plays chess and Othello with me. It handles several manuscripts at the same time. It corrects my spelling, indexes my texts, and tends my files and addresses. It suggests better words for me to use. And it has a hundred tricks it hasn't even shown me yet.

On the other hand, it's so demanding! If I say the wrong thing, it sulks and feigns ignorance. It tells me its secrets only if I say just the right words to it. During the first month it kept me on the rack -- rewarding me now and then by tossing me a new bone -- some yet-unrevealed Turkish delight.

Now the transition is completing itself. It isn't yet the comfortable old shoe that my old computer had turned into. But it's getting there, and it's getting there by changing me.

It's in the transitions among our machines that we come to appreciate their power in our lives. Do you remember your first bike or your first driver's license? Think back for a moment. That bike was like a flying carpet. It changed you irrevocably.

Some people like to ask if these transitions occur for good or ill. But that's not very helpful, because machine-making is an inseparable part of us. The question isn't whether we'll let them change us, but rather how fruitfully we'll let them do so.

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

(Theme music)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H. Lienhard.

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