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No. 1019:
Joining and Dividing

Today, we face forces that both divide us and join us. 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.

How better to understand technological change than to study the one change that's engulfing us right now? What effects are the electronic media having? A colleague recently shifted that issue to a broader one: Two general forces are afoot in society, she said, forces that fragment us and forces that unify us.

Since the 19th century, public education and school textbooks have drawn our culture together. Do you remember The Weekly Reader in grade school? Early network radio -- fireside chats, Orson Welles, and the Lone Ranger drew us together as a nation. Then network TV: Who among us didn't hear, again and again on TV, Martin Luther King's dream of little black children and little white children playing together!

Yet the forces of fragmentation are growing. Public education is giving way to splintered private schools. Public schools are becoming bilingual. Cable TV is offering more channels every year. We can chase our interest in cooking, history, or fishing.

Once we tried to celebrate our diversities by stirring them into a common pot. Now we protect and isolate differences. Of course, we face loss either way. We don't want to be homogenized. We don't want to lose global community. Common experience vs. fragmentation is becoming an essential tension of the 1990s.

Where do the computer networks fit in this tension? On the nets, I speak with friends in Japan and England, a scholar in Toronto, my far-flung offspring, and my wife in her study. The thin wire of a modem becomes a penstock, gushing its flood of shared information. Surely computers are building community.

But they also fragment us: I'll never meet that scholar in Toronto. My wife is on specialized listservs for string teachers and for people interested in creativity. My listservs deal with issues as particular as university politics and rare books.

So: are the new media dividing us or uniting us? Well, the answer is not simple. We and our technologies are synergistic. We resonate and feed one another. We become what our machines are -- we always have. But our machines also become what we are.

A century ago the new automobiles began scattering the extended family. But they also made the country smaller and drew us together. We wanted to be mobile and united at the same time. So cars drew us together and, at the same time, flung us apart.

Now the electronic media give us means for enacting more of our deepest wishes -- wishes for being sewn into communities and wishes for isolation. How we react to the networks depends on us -- not on ... Oops, e-mail from my wife: "It's after 5:00," she says. "Come home!" So, excuse me; I have to leave now.

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

(Theme music)

The colleague who suggested the prevailing tension was Judy Myers, UH Library.