Dreams Engineers Have
I confess: I'm a right-brain guy in a left-brain world. Images and
visions are more real to me than abstractions, I see the future more easily than
things that are right in front of my face.
That's why I started writing fiction and sold my first story at
seventeen. "Pleasant Journey" was published in Analog Science Fiction. It
concerned a man selling a virtual reality machine to carnivals. Attach the
electrodes and off you went into your own dream world. The carnival owner tried
it out and didn't want to come home. He wanted to stay in that virtual world
I studied liberal arts. We were taught that art and literature
mattered most; the loss of an art object or literary work was a tragedy. I
remember a professor weeping for the lost plays of Aeschylus.
No one grieved, however, for the streetlights of Cordoba or the sewers
of ancient Rome. Engineers were practical people. Their plans and drawings were
seldom the subject of scholarship, and I don't recall a single course in the art
of engineers and how their dreams made real the infrastructure of our
In part, that was because plans and drawings were never intended to
last. Once pencils were invented, plans were sketched in a way that smacked of
impermanence, like something you'd draw on a napkin over lunch.
Leonardo da Vinci filled his notebooks with plans and sketches. Those
notebooks, detailing his dreams, nearly disappeared after his death. He never
published their contents, and more than thirty volumes were left to his friend
Francisco Melzi with instructions for printing. Instead, they were ignored for
fifty years. When the contents were finally published in 1880, most of
Leonardo's inventions were obsolete.
Bill Gates paid a small fortune for those notebooks. He knows that
they're works of art worth owning - the dreams that prefigure our civilization.
It was no accident that my first short story was science fiction and
concerned technology enabling us to transform our lives. That's the story of our
century. The invention of electronic media, including the Internet, is the
infrastructure that enables dreamers and thinkers to be creative in new ways.
The medium is so much the message that we're writing stories about the
technology rather than the life it enables us to live. That will change, though.
The technology, the new media through which we express ourselves, will fade into
the background and become as transparent as contact lenses.
Henry Petroski's magnificent study of "The Pencil" begins with an
anecdote about Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau made a list of everything he needed
to take to his life in the woods but neglected to mention his pencil. Yet his
pencil was always in his pocket, and the Thoreau family business was... making
Science fiction is the way men and women in the twentieth century have
dreamed of the future. I like to joke that people who call me a "futurist" are
mistaken, that I describe the present to the ninety-five per cent of the
population that hasn't arrived at it yet. That's why it sounds like the future.
It's the same with science fiction, which depicts what is right in front of our
faces, coming around the corner at the speed of light. It sounds like the future
only if you aren't noticing what's happening.
I recently did an article on biometric identifiers - retina and iris
scans, fingerscans, voice prints, and the like - the use of part of us to stand
for all of us. Those digital artifacts don't merely stand for us, however, they
become us in the social, economic, and political worlds to which they allow or
Our word will not be believed when a retina scan refuses to allow us
into a secure area, just as we used to say "photographs don't lie," believing
the photo rather than the person in the photograph. Now that photos and all
forms of information can be digitized, we know that photos do lie. A photo is no
longer worth a thousand words when both words and images are subject to digital
What will it be like in the virtual world in which digital bits "pass"
for ourselves? Let's go further. What will it be like when the information that
is ourselves - i.e. our DNA code, the drawing or blueprint that is
expressed as our bodies, our minds, our lives - can be uploaded and stored?
Teleportation used to be a sci-fi subject. Two years ago, an
international group of six scientists confirmed that perfect teleportation is
possible - but only if the original is destroyed.
That theoretical work changes teleportation from a sci-fi scenario
into an engineering problem. If the information that constitutes our pattern or
code can be transmitted and replicated, and the original is destroyed in the
process - who arrives? Who is left behind?
In a similar way, we used to think the hard copy was the "real"
document and photocopies were secondary. Now we think the virtual copy stored in
digital memory is the "real" document and hard copies are mere images of the
The network is the computer, and Marvin Minksy reminds us in The
Society of Mind that turning over a multiplicity of representations in our
collective mind instead of getting stuck in one way of seeing things is what we
mean by thinking. The network does the thinking. We are merely cells in a single
body, and a human being alone - like a stand-alone computer - is a brain in a
A Zen monk held up a cup and asked what was most important about it.
One pupil said the handle, another the bowl, but the monk shook his head. "The
most important thing about the cup," he said, "is the space it creates."
The Internet is "space" brimful of possibility and potential, but by
virtue of its structure it organizes the form of our thinking and dreaming.
Engineers who build the infrastructure of the world create the space in which we
live and move and have our being, and we don't even notice. It's as transparent
as Thoreau's pencil. We don't even know who's dreaming any more - the individual
or the collective mind - and what is science fiction or science fact. We
do know that engineers dream up our space and, like God in creation, are
everywhere present in our lives but nowhere visible.
That's the cost of making sketches with pencils. That's the cost of
using materials that decay. But then, everything decays, and digital images are
more transitory than drawings. Art and artifact converge, and those who build
the infrastructure that informs how we dream are at least as creative as
Aeschylus, as practical as Leonardo, and as holy as that Zen monk.
Richard Thieme is a writer and public speaker. For sixteen years he
was an Episcopal priest who led parishes in Salt Lake City, La Haina, Maui, and
Milwaukee. In 1993 he founded Theimeworks, a consulting company specializing in
helping people and organizations understand the dynamics of living in computer
© CTheory. All Rights Reserved