Today, we look for a crystal ball. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
How badly we want to read
the future; and how badly we actually do it! How
poorly we predict where technology is going. Our
world isn't at all like the one I once thought I'd
be living in.
When I was in high school we all expected to own
personal helicopters by 1960. Surely transportation
would be changed beyond all recognition by 1990.
But automobiles and airplanes haven't changed much
in 40 years.
If I were somehow given leave to talk to my
16-year-old self, I'd have to tell him that the
moon landing and space flight captured the public
mind for a while and then gave way to other
interests. At 16 I wouldn't have understood how
personal computers would one day rivet attention
more strongly than flying to Mars.
And yet, 200 years ago, Watt thought transportation
was a gross and unsafe use for his new steam
engine. He never dreamed how his engines would
revolutionize 19th-century transportation.
We make mistakes like this because we
systematically create a naive view of technology.
We talk about it in the language of logic -- a
language where B always appears to follow A. Our
language makes technology look predictable.
But technology is too close to the human soul for
that. Our machines mirror the mercurial
complexities of the people who use them. Take the
typewriter and the phonograph.
When the first typewriters were sold for personal
use, no one bought them. Sales took off only when
companies saw that typewriters could speed
commerce. They failed with individuals because
hand-written letters were a deeply-ingrained part
of 19th-century culture. Companies could exchange
typed letters -- but a gentleman would never send
one to a friend.
The twistings and turnings of Edison's phonograph
are even more complex. The typewriter was close to
its final form within a few years. But Edison's
phonograph triggered a whole train of subsequent
sound-preserving technologies. Edison himself
thought his new machine would be used to record
deathbed testaments. Who could have predicted the
complex way that recorded sound would interweave
itself with radio, television, and motion pictures
-- with elevators, dentists, and jogging -- with
the very fabric of our lives? It seems that it's
used for everything except deathbed testaments
Two things make it almost impossible to see where a
technology is headed. For one thing, machines
trigger the human mind and create their own
evolution. But even more than that, they bring out
human responses that absolutely defy prediction.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds