Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1155:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1155.

Today, thoughts about Thorstein Veblen and the information age. 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.

Thorstein Veblen graduated from Minnesota's Carleton College in 1880 -- a few years ahead of my grandmother. I was raised in a conservative Minnesota family and my smart grandmother provided leftish leaven to my upbringing. As for Veblen, well, I carried his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, off to the army with me.

I arrived at Fort Monmouth just as Joe McCarthy accused the fort of Communist leanings. We were allowed to display one book in our foot locker, presumably something morally uplifting. I expressed my moral outrage at McCarthy by displaying Veblen's book.

That small gesture frightened many people around me. Veblen was near enough to Marx to be dangerous. Worse yet, he'd taught at Stanford and Chicago, two schools McCarthy labeled pro-Communist.

Veblen believed technology lay at the heart of society. The bad guys were manipulators of money who produced neither material goods nor the ideas behind them -- people who practiced what he called "conspicuous consumption." As I read Veblen and prepared for a teaching career, I worried. Would I really contribute to the world's well-being by teaching engineering instead of practicing it, or was I just fooling myself? Veblen became my conscience.

Of course the word technology means the knowledge of technique and materiel. Veblen was clearer on that point than we are. Today the fastest growing technologies are those of information handling in its many forms. In other words, technology has become the immaterial handling of immaterial information.

Information is now replacing materiel and labor. For example, today's jet planes look just like they did forty years ago. You'd think the technology was static. But those planes use only half the fuel they once did. That's because sophisticated computers very precisely manage engine performance and flight plans.

The availability of material fuel has been effectively doubled by the manipulation of immaterial information. With computers handling ticket sales and flight scheduling, most planes fly more nearly full. That too yields huge savings in material resources.

As we close-couple factories to retail outlets, warehousing and waste are reduced. I expect movies served over TV cable lines will replace video cassettes before long. Everywhere we turn, the new information media are reducing the amount of materiel and labor we need. Knowledge literally serves in their place.

And Veblen's ghost hovers over all this change. Capital is still as damaging as ever when it's separated from technology -- material or immaterial. Capitalists who turn a blind eye to what their money does remain a destructive force. But capital is also a form of information about goods and services. And when it is wielded by people who care about the common good, it too serves us -- as surely as any other information technology does.

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

(Theme music)

Veblen, T.B., The Theory of the Leisure Class. Many publishers since 1899.

See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica for good biographical material on Veblen. I am grateful to Professor Tom DeGregori, UH Economics Department, for additional counsel on Veblen.

For a picture of Veblen and the full text of the Theory of the Leisure Class online, visit the following website: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/VEBLEN/veblenhp.html

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

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