Today, information, too dense to be objective. 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.
The electronic media are
clearly changing the texture of knowledge.
Knowledge was once a hard-earned commodity. If we
didn't know how to spell a word, we had to find a
dictionary and thumb through alternatives. We paid
a penalty for not knowing.
Now two very different articles in the New York
Science Times: Each hints at how information
access is changing our thinking. The first is about
virtual archaeology. We can visit old ruins, fully
restored, on our computer screen. A group at UCLA
takes us on a virtual stroll through the Roman
This was a three-hundred-foot-long, three-story
public space, with offices, shops, and a great
hall. It was built in the second century BC,
expanded in AD 22, and destroyed in the fifth
century. The UCLA group has pieced it together from
fragmentary evidence -- writings, ruins, images on
coins. I toured this recreated "original" on my
computer, and it was glorious; I felt
UCLA has also done a virtual restoration of the
Colosseum. Like an online spell-checker,
this is not so much new information as new access.
We suddenly see how inconvenient the upper floors
were for those of its fifty thousand patrons who
sat in the cheap seats. We find how easy it was to
get around on the lower floors. We see the view
from the various seats. Still, these images leave
archaeologists divided. Is this just a fancy
computer game, or is it a new kind of
understanding? One thing's certain: the texture of
our understanding is permanently altered once we've
seen the images.
The other Times article tells about a
completely different kind of information use --
password selection. A thief has one chance
in ten thousand of guessing a four-digit
password. If, instead, we use four
letters, he has one chance in half a
Now computers offer a screen with pictures that
have hundreds of component images. One is a page
full of anatomical detail -- a skull, an arterial
system, the skeleton of a hand.
So I choose only three elements: a jawbone, a major
artery to the brain, and a bone of the fourth
finger. If the page has five hundred clickable
elements, there's not a chance in a hundred million
of guessing my password. And to recall my
three choices, I just relive the sharp sensation I
feel when I press my fourth finger against the
artery behind my jaw.
Here we have two entirely different instances, but
both involve a vast multiplication of information.
In one case, we tour places that no longer exist.
In the other, password selection moves down into
our own subjective musings. In both cases, the
density of data mimics human experience. Suddenly,
rather than providing mere information, the
computer becomes a new arm of human experience.
As it does, we no longer mean the same thing when
we use that old word we once thought we understood
-- the old word reality.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lubell, S., Virtually Rebuilt, a Ruin Yields Secrets.
(pg. E6) and Eisenberg, A., Instead of a Password,
Well-Placed Clicks. The New York Times (Science
Times) Thursday, May 2, 2002.
For more on "virtual archaeology," see the following
And for more on visual passwords, see:
How many passwords do you suppose you
might make from an image like this one? (Click on the
thumbnail to see full-sized image.)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.