Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1844:
HORIZONTAL SOCIETY

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the horizontal society. 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 New York Times acrostic puzzle is usually pretty tricky by the third Sunday of the month, but not this time. All the clues had to do with science. When I'd finished, it gave me the following quote from Lawrence Friedman's book, The Horizontal Society:

The average citizen who has no idea how a refrigerator works still feels that scientists, if they worked hard enough, could cure the common cold or get power out of turnip juice or send a satellite zooming off to Pluto.

All those things should indeed be doable, although they'll be the work of engineers and doctors, as much as scientists. And, whatever we send zooming off to Pluto won't be a satellite since it'll no longer orbit Earth. But nevermind that. Where Friedman is headed is intriguing and it's compelling:

He observes that political power, which once flowed vertically, now flows horizontally, and the growth of mass media has been a major force in bringing this state of affairs about.

Power once flowed downward from king to serf. You looked up and down a chain of command as you carried out your daily business. Today, we look to our peers for the signposts that guide our actions. We tell one another that any of us can make a difference and that any child can grow up to be president.

Friedman points out that, when Hitler tried to place himself on top of a vertical flow of power, his first order of business had to be controlling the horizontal flow of information. People still try to claim vertical power, but they're increasingly thwarted by the mercurial, liquid, and near-instantaneous, flow of information.

The relevance of that acrostic puzzle [quotation] is that technology itself is a form of mass media. Look at the automobile: It's become a powerful part of our agreed-upon culture. We rightly regard ourselves as co-owners of that technology. As a physical object, the automobile gives us freedom of horizontal movement. Almost all of us know something about its technology and operation. And we embrace it as an icon that reflects who and what we are. It represents the good in us — efficacy, physical beauty, and a kind of buoyancy of spirit. It represents the bad as well — pollution, danger, congestion.

But the automobile is also emblematic of our ability to create and build. Whether as designers, or users, we all share in its creation. And so, Friedman tells us, a part of our modern horizontalness is that we no longer wait upon kings and satraps to build a better world. We expect no less from one another.

Our shared enterprise of technology thus becomes a means of communication in which we tell each other just what this world might actually be. We really will figure out how to get power from turnip juice — by cold fusion or atomic fission. If I can't figure it out, well — you can. (Though I do remain bothered by that satellite flying away to Pluto.)

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


I refer here to the New York Times acrostic puzzle for Sept. 21, 2003.

L. M. Friedman, The Horizontal Society, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

For more on the Automobile as a technology of the horizontal society, see J. H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, see especially Chapters 8, 9, and 15.
NYT acrostic


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.