Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1224:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1224.

Today, we compress time. 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.

Consider this, says computer systems manager Richard Madaus: You're chopping vegetables in the kitchen. The pasta's heating in the microwave. The news is on TV. A load of washing is running in the garage. You're using the phone on your shoulder to arrange a meeting. You're getting so much done -- far more than my hardworking and efficient parents ever managed to do at one time.

It's no surprise that machines simplify tasks and let us work more efficiently. But the flip side is a surprise. Just ask how much easier your life is. How much more leisure do you have? It turns out you do not have more leisure than your grandparents did.

At first blush, this looks like one more Parkinson's law situation: "The work expands to fill the time." With vacuum cleaners we now keep our rugs cleaner. With washing machines we change clothes daily instead of weekly. But, as technology moves from saving labor to speeding communication, something larger is going on. We aren't just filling time, we're compressing it as well.

I recently wrote a book review. The same day, I sent it to the editor in word-processed form. Later that day the edited version came back for approval. It wasn't just ready for type-setting, it was finished and typeset that same day. What would've taken months in 1990 was now finished in hours. This goes far beyond mere efficiency. That task would've sat on my plate and slowed me from taking on new tasks. Now it's done and I'm off to other things.

As turn-around times shrink, our expectations rise, and productivity accelerates. Labor-saving is only part of the story. The other part is about labor-compressing. Madaus says, "Look at how decision-making is speeding. Yesterday we were content to wait two weeks for an answer to a letter. Today, someone who doesn't answer e-mail within the hour is an obstructionist."

The speed of decision-making is changing the very character of productivity. One thing concluded, the next begins. It's not that productivity is illusory. The electronic media really do offer the potential for living fuller lives. But we haven't yet found a speed controller that'll let us do so.

As we drive ourselves into a dither, it's worth remembering that new communications media bring vast change into our lives. The invention of writing and the invention of printing took, not years, not generations, but centuries to assimilate.

Two thousand years ago, Plutarch told us to "be ruled by time, the wisest counselor of all." But he said something else as well:

Ease and speed in doing a thing do not give the work lasting solidity or exactness of beauty.

And that comes back to haunt us. The question is not whether to enter this brave new world, for it is hardly a matter of choice. But we clearly have much to learn about how we should live in it.

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

(Theme music)

J. Richard Madaus Directs the College Center for Library Automation, which provides computer support for the Community College Libraries throughout Florida. He spoke at the Dade County Library Association Annual Workshop held on March 14, 1997, in Miami.

For more on the subjective character of time, see Episodes 1005, 986, and 538.

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

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