The Technological institute, Northwestern University Graduation Convocation
June 12, 1976
”Hodie mihi, cras tibi,” “today for me, tomorrow for you,” a Latin philosopher said, as we salute the Class of 1976. For here we go again, trying to tell you something of the world that you will help to make. We suppose that most of you will follow engineering and science. Thereby you can bring to our Nation and the western world of free people a new and needed sense of what is reality and what is illusion. Illusion is in its basic meaning of that which deceives or is false in perception, about which the poets Beaumont and Fletcher wrote:
“Have you more strange illusions, yet more myths,
Through which the weak eye may be led to error?”
And reality in its ancient Latin root meaning “thing,” was thought, in turn, to come from the Sanskrit “ra” which meant “to give”a happy thought, for if it can't be given, it isn't there.
Because of the wondrous ranging of the mind, the difference between reality and illusion is blurred, fuzzy. And also, there is the infinite domain of the spiritual, which does not have the mockery or deception of illusion in its essence, and which we shall accept as basic to all humanity. What we are reporting this morning is quite different and is rooted in the deep concerns and agonies of our times. You know well all the illusions that are involvedthat “might makes right,” that “ends justify the means,” that honesty is what a person or institution believes it can get away with, that we need merely to pass laws to improve the social condition in cities, in education, in housing, in transport, and even in providing gasoline.
Now in our present world, an astonishing range of these illusions, held and acted on by so many, is curiously related to scientific and engineering realities. Again you know how much of this has happenedcitizens and governments have thought that energy from the nucleus would make electricity for Con Edison at Indian Point, have thought that the thrust and electronic precision of moon rocketry and satellites would make Amtrak run on time, that printing of government bonds for billions of debt in applying urban weaponry to a rural war in Asia could be kept from being inflation through price controlsand so it goes. Will some modern Gibbons or Spengler write of the decline and fall of the West, as the piling of illusion on illusion about what our great industrial states and nations, presumably founded on a technical reality, can actually do?
Mercifully, it need not be this way. For there is a mighty counterforce to separate illusion from reality in the doings of men and nations. That force is knowledge. It, of course, is your stock in trade, as students, and mixed with humanism it even becomes wisdom. But we are saying today that vast science and technology about knowledge and its spread to the people are emerging. Almost anything you do in engineering and sciencein energy, in public health, in transport, in manufacture, and of course in teachingwill involve you in this technology of handling the huge learning that we have and shall enhance.
But knowledge is futile without communion. We can by practice and example communicate how the realities of Baconian science and technology are gained. And we can by doing so contain and even destroy the dangerous illusions of taking as real what is merely said, for political expediency or personal desire.
But to spread this creed of knowledge takes communications and organization of information itself. Those things now are becoming possible on a scale as wonderful as a moon voyage or a nucleic acid change, both of which they helped vitally to achieve. The mathematics, electronics, and materials of modern telecommunications and computers have made knowledge and information plentifully available to all.
What a grand adventure we shall have in creating not an illusory “great society,” a “new deal,” a “square deal,” a “fair deal,” but an informed society, a knowing nation and family of nations. T. S. Elliott saw it four decades ago, when he wrote: “What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community...”
Now we can meet his challenge of. community of knowledge, but a caution is needed. The very media, founded on communications and automata, especially television, can communicate illusion as well as reality, and that is all right as long as we know the difference. The media give that message and that is why we beseech you in your careers to bring out patiently and mindfully the organization and communication of knowledge, as is now possible by waves and signals, by digits and logic and electromagnetic memory, as well as by the underlying thought and words. For the ways you will deal with knowledge will expand the realms of thought, just as the visions of Archimedes in the bathtub, and Newton in the apple orchard, Darwin in reading “Malthus,” and Kekule on the London bus, changed the course of human progress. For these machines and networks that we are speaking of, these computers and telecommunications, deal with extensions of the mind and senses. Their physical forms are exciting enough. In the Bell System's laboratories we are passing words and images through hair-thin fibers of glass a thousand times clearer than glass has ever been made before in the millennia of its use. These parts of human knowledge, words and images, can be expressed and processed in communications and computers with the picosecond pulses of the laser, itself discovered by my colleagues less than a decade and a half ago, at a digital speed of a million million times a second. In contrast, we have long found that the fastest. information processing through the human beings' action system, including perception and cognition, seems be forty bits a second. The marvelous components and circuitry of even today's computers and communications systems are far far beyond what we started with, in the relays and vacuum tubes of forty years ago. Medium scale integrated circuits at the beginning of this decade put a few thousands of components on chips of silicon, which were themselves thousands of times smaller than the most efficient vacuum tube. By next year we believe this large-scale integration will have produced 10,000 or more components per chip in an actual digital machine. We now can have pulses of 8 nanoseconds or 8 X 10-9 seconds, and in a nanosecond light itself will travel only 30 centimeters in a vacuum, so these computers must be compact. In another decade we may be down, at present rate of progress, to half a nanosecond for a pulse, which is a time in which light would travel less than 12 centimeters. Before then we shall be making wires by electron beam tracings on a sensitive surface, which are about 5,000 angstroms (500 nanometers) in width. Similarly, in memory storage we can work with hundreds of millions of bits in a unit.
And what does all this mean for extending the mind in handling knowledge? Well, presently we use about 8 bits per character (letter, numeral or other symbol) for storage or processing, so a million characters per second is an easy thing to managea few hundred thousand words.
And Shannon's Information Theory says, as Lesk is finding to be true, that English text really requires more like one to two bits per character, with business records perhaps needing two to three, so even these fabulous quantities of knowledge processing and communication are not limits. In our current work in the National Commission for Libraries and Information Science, and in the National Library of Medicine, and in university programs supported by the Council for Library Resources, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (in the Ohio College Library system and the Southern. network just being formed (SOLINET)), we are already advancing the indexing and retrieval of recorded knowledge based on those principles. Truly we are at the threshold of an era of entropy machinesoffering ways to reduce the confusion and disorder of social and economic events, and above all to verify and to systematize the knowledge necessary to meet the expectations of our civilization.
These massive data handling and organizing capabilities can give us insight not only into atoms, the living cell, crystals and climates. They can, through new statistics such as multidimensional scaling, reveal the behavior of people and of societies.
So by this path we can advance again in reality, far past illusion, as the pioneers of science and technology have done before. By this path we can go to knowledge that now may seem as distant and unreal as any dream, but which can be brought to reality through the same plodding, hard-headed, careful work that has given the present knowledge base for science and engineering. Thus we must heed, along with all our present reality, what Emily Dickinson wrote a century ago:
“Much Madness is divinest Sense
To a discerning Eye
Much Sensethe starkest Madness
‘Tis the Majority
In This, as All, prevail
Assentand you are sane
Demuryou’re straightway dangerous
And handled with a Chain“
So you see, above all, this dedication to separating reality from illusion, which we ask, gives us a priceless chance to go forward, as Tennyson said:
“Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world,
whose margin fades, Forever and forever when I move.”
For by knowing and respecting what is real, we shall project most skillfully, into the future, knowledge yet unreal, but not illusory.
Finally, we have said that the major relief to the plague of illusion of these days is reality, sustained and communicated by the knowledge industry and by information technology. If this is so, how has society valued that effort? In other words, what economics apply to it, what kinds of careers can be expected, along with the social and national satisfactions of contributing to national strength? First, in a qualitative way, we can think of the estimates of such philosopher economists as Peter Drucker, who, in his recent book, The Age of Discontinuity - Guidelines to Our Changing Society, says, “Knowledge, during the last few decades, has become the central capital, the costs center, and the crucial resource of the economy. … Knowledge has already become the central cost of the American economy. The productivity of knowledge has already become the key to productivity, competitive strength, and economic achievement! Knowledge has actually become the ‘primary’ industry, the industry that supplies the economy, the essential and central resource of production. … Knowledge, the true factor of productivity, enjoys almost unlimited mobility. Knowledge is a very peculiar economic resource. When moved from the U.S. to Europe, it is a net addition to the European stock of capital. But there is no corresponding decrease in the American stock of capital ... free trade in goods … is important. But free movement of capital and free movement of knowledge may be more important still.”
These estimates of Drucker are of course oversimplified, but give a generally valid perspective. Thus, if one includes education and the media industries like publishing, advertising, along with information-processing businesses like banking, insurance and securities, some 20 to 30 per cent of our Gross National Product is already represented by the information, communication and knowledge business. However, the critical thing is the rate of growth. While in the past third of a century population went up at an average of 1.5 percent a year (it will be slower in the future), the number of checks written grew at 6.7 percent compounded; the number of motor vehicle registrations, at 4 percent; passports issued, at 16 percent; social security payments, at 17 percent for individuals; telephones in use, at 6.2 percent; and pieces of mail handled, at 3.6 percent. Even more significantly, the costs of important information and communications operations are constantly being contained and recast. For instance, as a result of efficient manufacturing of thin film circuitry, such as pioneered by the Western Electric Company, the present cost per component of electrical elements in telephone gear, computer sensors, and other vital information machines is about one cent. By the end of the decade, this value is likely to be about 0.003 of a cent, and thus a transistor in such versatile form, capable of handling millions of digits a second, will cost about as much as a word printed on a page of a hardcover bound book. This corresponds to only 8 or 20 bits. Obviously the whole economic as well as social and technical frontier is moving rapidly, just at the time our society most needs this inflation and communication counterforce to illusion.
So, I can only conclude that you have one of the most appealing options of modern times, in which you can advance the cause of freedom and humanism, while enjoying the challenge and rewards of a most sophisticated and interesting intellectual and professional endeavor. And surely you can forward the pervasive theme that science and engineering, through communications and information technology, will lead to a new ethic. The sense and feeling of our people are ready. For instance, in the Wall Street Journal's reluctant discourse, two weeks ago, of how our National Administration could possibly have fallen into its tragic times, they said, “A preoccupation with image rather than reality, it seems to us, is a characteristic that runs through both the conversations and the faults they reveal. In conversation after conversation, it becomes impossible to tell whether the participants are trying to recall events or concoct a story. One gets the feeling they did not distinguish between the two in their own minds, that to them there was no reality, only the image they could paint.”
Then, too, on the part of the philosophers and spokesmen for our times, such as the work of Professor Daniel Boorstein, as summarized in his recent book (Democracy and Its Discontents), the idea is forwarded, “Illusion is the currency of our culture: disillusion is its inflation. The path that might have comforted us, perhaps even made us proud, is a victimlike everything elseof planned obsolescence.” Once more the new technology of knowledge can shield us from this awful loss of continuity and detachment from what has been or is real. So, as we bid you the very best of futures in a land where the best can indeed be sought and foundyes, even in Government as well as in individual lifewe also bequeath to you the jobs of making plain and understood what Shakespeare meant in “King Henry IV,” in having Glendower boast: “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” and then having Hotspur reply: “Why, so can I, or so can any man, But will they come when you do call for them?”