Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1707:

by John H. Lienhard

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 Basilica Aemilia.

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 physically present.

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 million.

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 work.

(Theme music)

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 web sites:

And for more on visual passwords, see:
http://zdnet.com.com/2100-11-525841.html?legacy=zdnn http://www.rsasecurity.com/newsletter/v1n3/advanced.html

Nineteenth-century plate of electrical instruments 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. Lienhard.