Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 187:
TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATION

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 187.

Today, technology has something to tell us. 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.

Technology is a form of communication. That's right! Technology is one way we talk to each other. Suppose you want to tell a friend how to go from Houston to Detroit. You could write out the sequence of roads and turns she'd take to get there. Or you might prepare a map. You might do something more abstract -- you might tell her what it feels like to drive to Detroit -- about the ride and sights you see on the way.

The engineers in Detroit have another way of describing the trip. They design the machine we use to make it. They create the experience of the trip -- give it its form and texture. Those engineers are using the automobile to tell you their own concept of what that experience should be. The feel of it, the sense of motion, the beauty of the auto, the way the car lies in your life and shapes it. These are all things the designer consciously says, in a remarkably efficient and compact way.

This was impressed on me the other day when my wife and I found a prefab furniture item we needed. The box had been damaged by a forklift, and the as-is price was next to nothing. But it was a big, complicated, three-element item, with 10 pages of assembly instructions. It was not a job for sissies.

We bought it, and when we opened the box, the instructions were gone. Thirty precut pieces of wood, a couple of hundred metal and plastic fittings, and no instructions.

At first I was devastated. Then I decided to consult the designer directly. How did I do that? Easy -- I just looked at the parts and listened to the clear logic they represented. Why was this piece notched and drilled the way it was? Why did some fittings have little ribs while others didn't? In the end, I was relieved of the tedious and confusing intermediary of written instructions. When I worked from inside the designer's head, the whole thing went together smoothly. I walked away with a real respect for this anonymous fellow -- this person I'd come to know and respect for his essential sense of simplicity and elegance.

We're perfectly happy to acknowledge other nonverbal forms of communication -- pictures, music, body language. But technology is the largest such presence in our lives. And it speaks to us with a powerful clarity and directness. Sometimes it speaks of venality and greed. But good technology speaks of beauty and form and order. And that's because the most effective makers and builders of things aren't driven by fame or gain. They're driven by the need to share with us a vision that's formed itself in their minds.

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

(Theme music)


This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1694.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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