Today, let's talk about Luddites and techies. 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.
We seem to be finishing the
millenium with all eyes on technology. Most of us
are optimistic. Still, anti-technology stridency is
rising. Listen to voices whipping up Y2K fears.
Both the promise and the threat of technology are
greater than they've ever been, and technology is
at the center of our thoughts.
Example: Nothing can change as wondrously and
rapidly as electronic communications have without
calling up dark forces of social dislocation.
Another example: Biological miracles have
transformed agriculture and medicine. But they've
also attracted the prurient interests of arms
manufacturers. And they're beset by the hobgoblin
of unintended side
None of this is new. Once we expected dirigibles
and dynamite to be so vicious as weapons that they
would end war. The spinning jenny once seemed to
promise the end of honest labor and starvation for
workers. In hindsight we know these technologies
have served the common good. But they also
have disrupted society.
Yet the situation is far more extreme today because
of a huge (but little known) change that took place
in the nineteenth century. The Germans invented a
completely new kind of organization in 1824. It was
the research and
development laboratory. After that,
technology became the work of a new class of
professionals who worked together and who
expected to change the world. When they did that,
the rate of technological change took off. Before
this new organization, it'd taken a third of a
century for steam engine efficiencies to reach
twice that of a Watt engine. By now we watch the
speed of computers doubling
every few months.
Of course we ourselves have also changed.
We've grown to rely on technological evolution.
We're a lot better at assessing and absorbing new
technology. We're far better critics than our
great-grandparents were. Eighteenth-century
observers saw new machines through very different
eyes than we do. That's why Thomas Jefferson, with
his incessant curiosity about new technology, was
so remarkable. That's also one reason he served
America so well.
In one way we still deal badly with new technology.
We swing between gullibility and alarm when we deal
with secondary effects. We polarize over
global warming, Y2K, biological engineering, the
Internet. Our search for sane ways to deal with
these matters is deflected by vested interests on
Next time you hear talk of Luddites, remember that,
when the original Luddites
broke up textile factories two hundred years ago,
it was a different world. No reasonable person
today doubts that technology offers benefits and
danger alike. But the rising stakes, and the rising
urgency of our choices, create a whole new world of
problems. We've come to the point of needing new
rational means -- a new science -- for dealing with
the complexity and the speed of technological
change in the new millenium.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds