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No. 949:
A Needle in a Haystack

Today, we look for needles in the haystack of a brave new world. 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.

We're told we live in an information age. That's entirely true but very easy to misinterpret. The library head at a Big Ten university recently announced that, by the turn of the century, 98 percent of new written material would come out in electronic form. A New Yorker cartoon makes a fine mockery of that.

It shows a man and woman at a cocktail party, trying to impress each other. "No," he says, "I haven't read it yet, but I've downloaded it from the Internet." The flood of electronic information rises far faster than we can absorb it. And we often do print what we've found on to paper before we read it.

Yesterday, I logged on to the Internet. I'd heard I could find out if a book I was interested in was still in print. The Internet offered me a menu of 13 choices. I chose one. It led to a second menu that offered 9 choices. As I continued, I reached 15 successive menus. They offered from 4 to 43 choices each. The 16th screen gave me an e-mail address from which I could've downloaded a catalog -- and then, I suppose, read it on paper.

So I calculated the odds of making that sequence of choices randomly. I would've had one chance in 12.5 quadrillion. The only reason I found the source was that I'd been given instructions for most of the steps. The menus alone were not nearly informative enough to steer me to such a distant goal.

We're going through one of the great technological shifts of all time. Two processes operate during such a revolution. The first is that we begin by missing the point and failing to use the new technologies effectively. The Internet is still like a great big world-wide phone book -- organized by local street names.

The second process is that we try to replace too much with the new technology. In the early 19th century we began replacing our water wheels with steam power. Then we realized that water power was free -- no fuel costs. Once we did the sums, we often wound up tearing out steam engines and going back to water power.

Now we're organizing our institutions as though paper were going out of style. Meanwhile the electronic flow of information is actually creating a precipitous increase in the amount of paper we consume -- and book sales are rising.

We watch both processes going on around us. We try to write for computer screens the way we've always written for paper. And we assume electronics will replace, rather than supplement, media that're too deeply rooted in our psyches to be replaced.

We ourselves offer you any free Engines script by e-mail. Just send your request to us. Or you can find it on the World-Wide Web at The catch is: You'll almost surely download it on to paper -- before you read it.

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

(Theme music)

I'm grateful to Pat Bozeman, presently in charge of Collection Development at the UH Library, for providing much of the background material for these observations.