Engines of Our Ingenuity


by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 749.

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 loses nothing.
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 together, openly.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Cleveland, H., The Twilight of Hierarchy: Speculations on the Global Information Society. Information Technologies and Social Transformation (Guile, B.R., ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1985, pp. 55-80.

I'm grateful to Judy Myers, UH Library, for pointing out Cleveland's remarkable article and for counsel with this episode.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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