Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 938:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 938.

Today, we ask who is waging the information revolution. 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.

Last week I popped in, unannounced, on two units of a great eastern university. First, the rare book room, with its holdings under lock and key. Next, its famed Media Lab, devoted to using the new electronic communications. I went from the quiet world of early printed books to the electronics that promise to change civilization just as surely as those old books once did.

The rare book people gladly showed me all I cared to see. In the front office of the Media Lab, with its bright displays, the secretary asked if I had an appointment. I said, "No, I just want to see what you're doing." She sent me to an administrator, who said I could schedule a meeting with someone later in the week.

"I only want a quick overview," I told her. "I'm sorry," she said, "The person who gives overviews isn't in today." "Okay, why don't you tell me about the Lab -- what do you do here?" "I'm sorry," she sighed, "I'm not authorized to talk about that."

The next day I stopped in the humanities library looking for a computer link to a bibliographic source. A reference librarian went to work. His computer screen danced with ideas as he poured his energies into my question and adopted it as his own.

These are two characteristic faces of the information revolution: For librarians, keepers of the both the old paper books and the new electronic media, information flow is a first principle. But the new Media Lab, would-be center of the electronic revolution, had already mired into the old corporate office protocols. Its polite stonewalling wasn't done out of rudeness. It simply reflected the old and dying idea that knowledge is private property.

I finally suggested that they might remember that the medium really is the message. If the study of communication doesn't look and taste like communication, then it probably isn't communication after all. That idea drew only a puzzled smile.

Meanwhile, it is you and I, with our hands on the keyboards, who shape the information revolution; it is librarians for whom information takes many forms, all of them public; engineers, teachers, and paramedics who use the new media; teenagers who talk on the networks and their grandmother who buys a modem so she can talk with them. Technological change is always shaped by the childlike curiosity and mental hunger of real people.

Others lurk, waiting to put the new media under front-office control, just as people have tried to do with every other communications medium. And we'd better remember the hard-learned lesson of the printed word: Knowledge is much, much more than power. Knowledge is pleasure. It is freedom. And it is ours.

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

(Theme music)

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

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