No. 222:
Crystal Balls

Today, we look for a crystal ball. 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 badly we want to read the future; and how badly we actually do it! How poorly we predict where technology is going. Our world isn't at all like the one I once thought I'd be living in.

When I was in high school we all expected to own personal helicopters by 1960. Surely transportation would be changed beyond all recognition by 1990. But automobiles and airplanes haven't changed much in 40 years.

If I were somehow given leave to talk to my 16-year-old self, I'd have to tell him that the moon landing and space flight captured the public mind for a while and then gave way to other interests. At 16 I wouldn't have understood how personal computers would one day rivet attention more strongly than flying to Mars.

And yet, 200 years ago, Watt thought transportation was a gross and unsafe use for his new steam engine. He never dreamed how his engines would revolutionize 19th-century transportation.

We make mistakes like this because we systematically create a naive view of technology. We talk about it in the language of logic -- a language where B always appears to follow A. Our language makes technology look predictable.

But technology is too close to the human soul for that. Our machines mirror the mercurial complexities of the people who use them. Take the typewriter and the phonograph.

When the first typewriters were sold for personal use, no one bought them. Sales took off only when companies saw that typewriters could speed commerce. They failed with individuals because hand-written letters were a deeply-ingrained part of 19th-century culture. Companies could exchange typed letters -- but a gentleman would never send one to a friend.

The twistings and turnings of Edison's phonograph are even more complex. The typewriter was close to its final form within a few years. But Edison's phonograph triggered a whole train of subsequent sound-preserving technologies. Edison himself thought his new machine would be used to record deathbed testaments. Who could have predicted the complex way that recorded sound would interweave itself with radio, television, and motion pictures -- with elevators, dentists, and jogging -- with the very fabric of our lives? It seems that it's used for everything except deathbed testaments today.

Two things make it almost impossible to see where a technology is headed. For one thing, machines trigger the human mind and create their own evolution. But even more than that, they bring out human responses that absolutely defy prediction.

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

(Theme music)

Some of these ideas were adapted from:

Rosenberg, N., A Good Crystal Ball is Hard to Find. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Spring 1986, pp. 44-50.