Today, let's look for parallels. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
A while ago I tried to get a
handle on the computer revolution by asking
what people had said about
printed books thirty years after Gutenberg.
There's a parallel, since we've now had integrated
circuits that long, and we've had personal
computers for 20 years.
What I learned about printed books was a
disappointment. No one saw revolution coming. All
anyone said in the 15th century was, "Gee whiz, can
we ever make a lot of books with printing!"
Now I've just found a 1904 series on Electricity
in Everyday Life. Electricity had come into
general use twenty years earlier when Edison
developed an electric power generation system for
his new light bulbs. These volumes came out when
electric power had been around about as long as
personal computers have been today.
The author tries to treat all of electrical science
and technology in 1700 pages. To set his stage he
asks us to live one day with a modern city dweller.
It's surprising to see how much electrical
technology was already within grasp in 1904. The
man goes to work on an electric trolley with a
newspaper printed on electric presses. The paper
got its news over telegraph, telephone, even radio.
It picked up stock quotations written electrically
on ticker tape. If the man's a policeman, he uses
electric burglar alarms and looks forward to having
pictures sent over telegraph lines. If he's a
doctor, his work is being transformed by X-rays.
Then we realize that electricity is being used in
three ways. Electric motors are widespread, and
they're already taken for granted. Electric
illumination is becoming a major issue. But the
lion's share of examples reflect the new theme of
communication: telephones, radio -- even an
embryonic ability to send pictures. That's just how
we see our electronic technologies serving us a
century later. So what did this author miss?
He completely missed the concept of mass media. He
saw communication serving individual needs, as they
always had. He didn't see individuals being altered
by the commonality of the new information flood. He
didn't see society and attitudes bending to those
new forces. He didn't seem to realize that
electricity was just beginning to provide pictures
that moved, and that moving images would become a
powerful new force in our lives.
Those are the same kinds of forces observers failed
to see coming after Gutenberg and the same kinds of
forces we cannot see coming at us. Each new
communication medium changes our values and then
causes us to agree upon those values.
So what'll the new computer-fed communications do
to us? They'll change our beliefs. They'll change
the way we live and move and dwell together.
They'll tear us apart and reassemble us. I'm
optimistic that change will ultimately be for the
better. But what it will look like, no one has ever
been able to predict -- not in Gutenberg's day, not
in 1904, and not now.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds