Today, an aging curmudgeon utters a parable about
technological change. 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.
I've just been lent an old
tape of an H.L. Mencken interview. It was 1948, and
Mencken was 68. By then he'd been the bad-boy
critic of American style during most of the 20th
century. Mencken was a brilliant iconoclast who
knew language and who wielded it like a surgical
When he wasn't pushing pins in all the favorite
idols of American life, he wrote about the American
language itself. He did literary criticism, drama
criticism, even music criticism.
He wrote six volumes of essays and critiques and
titled them Prejudices. He sneered at
19th-century nationalism. He called Americans "the
most sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of
serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one
He worked at many things during his life, but he
embraced one vocation. Asked what he was, he'd
always say, "I'm a newspaperman." My own father,
also a newsman, held Mencken very high.
So, the interview kept returning to the theme of
newspapers. Finally the interviewer asked a
question that doesn't occur to us today. "What do
you think of the way newspapers are getting into
the new medium of television?"
Mencken quotes Gresham's law, "Bad money drives out
the good." A fine restaurant goes downhill when it
tries to compete with the lucrative hot-dog stand
across the street.
Newspapers, he says, do what they do very well. TV
is a new technology, utterly different from
newspapers. It won't replace them. Instead, it will
go off in new directions. If news people let
themselves be suckered into TV, they'll surely lose
the ability to put out good newspapers.
Mencken's disdains often led him astray, but not
here. Forty-five years ago, we thought TV would
replace the papers. Of course it never did.
Newspapers may no longer fit into our lives the
same way they did in 1948. TV has certainly
captured some of their old functions. But there's
too much it cannot replace. The papers let you sift
the details and reread what you missed. They let
you work a crossword puzzle.
Now books seem threatened by the new electronic
communications technologies, and the story repeats
itself. The big publishers are trying to enter
electronic media. You can bet they'll be first to
lose sight of functions that are unique to books.
That edgy old iconoclast Mencken understood
something about technology. Change leaves many of
our machines to be forgotten. But the technologies
that fit us best simply adjust to an altered world.
Your grandchildren will still use things like
pencils, beds, and violins. They'll still read
books and newspapers.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds