Today, we search for duplication in two great
libraries. 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.
"You can get
that off the Internet," people like to say. The
vast sea of electronic material gives us the
feeling that, as long as we have a modem and a
monitor, we can forget printed matter.
Last spring, when the man in charge of Florida's
community college computers spoke about the
Internet, he drew two circles, side by side. The
larger circle represented the information content
of libraries. The smaller one represented the
content of the Internet. What was important about
his sketch was that the two circles barely
overlapped. One source doesn't begin to replace the
other. When we need bits of information, we go to
the Internet, or when we want to see what's new or
when we want to be part of an interactive community
But to embrace the whole story we read a book. When
we need a broad context to verify what we're being
told, we have to go to solid irreducible print. The
Internet doesn't hold a fraction of all that's been
thought out and written down. It never will. The
computer doesn't offer that kind of experience.
Rather, our fingers move upon the mouse or the
keyboard issuing instructions and joining the game.
The computer is about dancing into an interaction,
not about submitting ourselves to the full
expression of an idea. It's about trying out ideas,
not about study. The other day I got a piece labled
"MIT commencement address by Kurt Vonnegut." "Wear
sunscreen," it began. "If I could offer you only
one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it." The
piece went on to say,
Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh,
never mind. You will not understand the power and
beauty of your youth until they've faded.
The address was short and poignant. Minutes later,
a second e-mail announced that it wasn't by
Vonnegut at all. It was by a columnist named Mary
Schmich. Two days later Schmich wrote a whimsical
rejoinder. For a few hours, it circulated on the
The exchange wasn't about truth and falsehood. It
was about play. It was about the moment. It had no
more permanence than the fleeting youth that Mary
Schmich lamented. In that, the exchange reveals
what the Internet is really all about.
Books have always been a thing apart from human
concourse. They are a quiet room, apart from the
marketplace. The Internet is about business, chat,
and play -- all the time with both hands on the
wheel. It's flawed, exciting, unstable -- and not
to be confused with the full record of ourselves
that we keep in books.
People often ask when my programs will come out in
book form. They might someday, but then they'll be
a different animal. Any program that flits by in
three minutes is the stuff of the Internet. The
Internet is where you should look for it -- and
where you should have no trouble finding it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. Richard Madaus, director of the College Center for
Library Automation, which provides computer support
for the Community College Libraries throughout
Florida, spoke at the Dade County Library Association
Annual Workshop held on March 14, 1997, in Miami (see
Episode 1224). I am
grateful to Houston attorney Steve Hamilton, the
first to forward all the Schmich/Vonnegut postings to
I first offered these ideas in a different form in
Episode 877, and I return
to them from other angles in other episodes -
1283, 1374, and 1528, to name just three.
I finally did write a book version of episodes from
the first year in 1999.
Lienhard, J. H., The Engines of Our Ingenuity:
An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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