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
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
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
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
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.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
pg. 62, Myers, Wilson, Lienhard
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