Today, we try to adapt to a new methaphor. 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 1994 I suggested the
metaphor of mentors and
servants when I was asked if computers would
replace books. I said they could not, because books
and computers had established such different roles
in our lives. The book is a metaphorical mentor --
the voice of a teacher. I give myself over to a
book when I read it. I may criticize it when I'm
done, but the immediate relation between me and my
book is that of a student to a teacher.
The computer is quite another matter. From the
start it was there to serve us. We go to the
internet to be served facts, not to be mentored. We
order it to reserve a hotel room or send a message
to a friend. When I call up the library's web page,
I mix metaphors -- I order it to find which
book is there to teach me. But, in the end, we
will not allow these roles to stay mixed.
Now, while computers won't replace books, they
still harbor mischief. And that mischief shows up
in the Engines web site. When I speak on the
radio, either you hear me out, or you push the
button. What you cannot do is control what you hear
-- any more than you can alter the words in a book.
If you want to regain control, you turn to your
computer. You summon the Engines web page
and order it to find a fact or retrieve a script.
Behind the microphone I function (metaphorically,
at least) as your mentor. On the web, I am your
Now the mischief: several thousand people tap into
the site every week, and many send email. Often
those visitors have never heard of the radio
program. When Yahoo finds an Engines
page on, say, Albrecht
Haller's poetry or the Colonial use of digitalis,
visitors email me. They order up in-depth knowledge
of pre-romantic German poetry or Colonial medicine.
Mail pours in from school children, from people who
have something to add, from serious academics, and
from the idly curious. Each individual email is
welcome. In aggregate, they turn me into a kind of
information butler -- happy to serve where I can,
frustrated when I cannot, and bone tired.
A far more visible person in this predicament is
movie critic Roger Ebert. His web site brings in
hundreds of letters each day. In obvious
lists the kinds of letters he won't answer. No
help with school assignments, no answers to
that's easy to find on the web. He won't answer
trivia questions, and he won't read your
screenplay. He's telling us that he cannot provide
the level of service expected of a good servant.
And so, by casting old material in a new medium,
the web sharpens the metaphor of mentors and
servants. Once there, it awakens new expectations.
Technology often does that. Typewriters were no
simple replacement for pens, nor airplanes for
automobiles. Now and then, a new technology sets us
off on an entirely new road. And when it does,
we're all left just a little bit breathless.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds