Engines of Our Ingenuity

No 680:
OCEAN OF THE STREAM OF STORIES

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 680.

Today, we plunge into a new Ocean of Stories. 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.

Salman Rushdie reached the public eye when he wrote his Satanic Verses and wakened the ire of Islamic fundamentalists. But a more recent book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, is quite another matter. It's a fairy tale he wrote for his son.

A librarian opens her copy to page 71 and pushes it across the desk. "Read this," she says. So I read. A water genie is telling a boy about the Ocean of the Stream of Stories.

... it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one ... currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity. [Each] coloured strand ... contained a single tale. [The Ocean held] all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented. The Ocean of the Stream of Stories was in fact the biggest library in the universe.
[Because] the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, [Unlike] a library of books, the Ocean of the Stream of Stories ... was alive. [Here, dip your] cup ... you can [drink] from a single pure Stream of Story,
"Now," my friend asks, "What'll happen when we start using electronic information media? Our networks will become an Ocean of the Stream of Stories. All your life, information has come to you in packages -- in books and articles. Just watch the way streams of information will begin to flow and mix and change."

So, I ponder what electronic media are doing to the stories we tell. Rushdie's living sea is an apt metaphor. We've already begun swimming in this library of live electronic streams.

Already, my graduate students e-mail new ideas back and forth across continents. They have friends in Japan and France. The streams in this vast Ocean of Stories do indeed ebb and flow in various stages of completion.

Now our technical journals are poised to plunge into this weaving, shifting stream. When they do, they'll have new flexibility. Authors will be able to revise articles after they've released them. Our networks already let us read stories while they're still being invented.

We'll have to rethink the individuality of authorship. We'll need wholly new means for preserving our past -- for remembering how ideas evolved. Indeed, when the genie invites the boy to ladle a single story from the stream, he warns that it takes great skill to do that.

Five hundred years ago the new printing press upended the way we share ideas. It changed our world utterly. Now I sit in my office -- in my library of lovely dry paper books. And I shiver for a future about to be turned inside out again -- just as radically, just as permanently -- and just as wondrously.

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

(Theme music)


Rushdie, S., Haroun and the Sea of Stories. London: Granta Books, 1990 (New York: Penguin, 1991). See especially, pp. 71-72.

I'm grateful to University of Houston Librarian Judy Myers for her help with this episode. It was she who directed me to Edward Tufte's use of the Rushdie quote in relation to the problems faced by today's libraries. That conversation led to the following analysis of the information revolution as it stood in 1992:

Myers, J. E., Wilson, T. C., and Lienhard, J. H., Surfing the Sea of Stories: Riding the Information Revolution. Mechanical Engineering, October, 1992, pp. 60-65.


pg. 62, Myers, Wilson, Lienhard reference above


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

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