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No. 447:
Synthesis & Reality

Today, we hide reality -- and then have trouble finding it again. 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.

An odd anxiety hit us 90 years ago as our industries matured. Our first machines had been used to make the things we'd once made by hand -- clothing, furniture, and china. But now our machines were creating other machines -- cars, locomotives, and telephones. We began building a whole new synthetic world.

And the scale of machines became immense. Their size led to a whole new kind of photography -- people sitting on machines. A 1910 photo might show a 50-man crew strewn about a great turbine wheel they'd made. We saw ourselves as ants crawling on the synthetic output of a synthetic world.

Author Miles Orvell reminds us of the old Charlie Chaplin movie, Modern Times. Chaplin works on an assembly line. He's a human slave of the machine. Only when he climbs inside it and makes his communion with its moving gears does he become fully alive. He's only real when he admits he's part of the machine.

Our anxiety was about reality itself. Reality became an American obsession. Coca-Cola has called itself "The Real Thing" since 1940. But long before that, it told consumers to "Get the Genuine." Advertisers used that anxiety. "The Durham-Duplex is a real razor," says one. Hires tells us they make their soft drinks with "real root juices." The slogans promised a glint of reality in an ersatz world.

The philosopher Santayana saw that our thinking hadn't kept up with material change. He wrote, "The American will inhabits the skyscraper. The American intellect inhabits the colonial mansion." Sure, the new machines were images cast by our minds. But we still had a hard time making them part of modern thinking.

Society was changing too, and that aggravated our anxiety. The machines were equalizers. They let the lower classes have what only the upper classes once had -- transportation, mechanical servants, cleanliness, material decency. As machines shredded the class system, the elite began asking which people were real and which ones were synthetic.

If the world of 1910 was synthetic, what is the world of the 1990s! But we've made peace with imitations. We accept astroturf and heart implants. The synthetic products of our minds -- our machines -- are the reality of our age, and of the future.

Today, a new and serious anxiety is touching us. We can't figure out how to accept imitation and still keep some trace of our lovely old natural environment at the same time. If making peace with imitation leads us to overlook nature, that really is cause to be anxious.

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

(Theme music)

Orvell, M., The Real Thing. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989.