Atemporal Engineering

The Idea of Progress, the idea that advances in science, technology, and social organization produce linear improvements in the human condition, has been the dominant social narrative of Western Civilization since the Enlightenment.

Technical design – engineering – has been enslaved to the narrative of Progress for over 200 years. Science and technology, driven by rationality and the promise that man will one day fully dominate and control nature, has been a tool of capitalist industrialization, powering limitless growth and ever-increasing productivity.

But the narrative is crumbling, and everyone knows it.

“The psychology of the American Zeitgeist has been shattered by the failure of all of our national narratives.

“A diminishing of the relevance of the sovereign nation state, revealed in the insecure efforts to reinforce its very existence with the fantasy of border walls, the inability of governments large and small to service their own debt, and the dubious viability of governance by a monolithic “sovereign” in a world that is really run by networks.” 1

The claim of improved human condition is rendered grotesque in the face of emergent inequity between the very few and the very many.

The assumptions of limitless growth are running up against the physical limits of a finite world; an impending ecological self-correction is putting the fiscal economy in its place in the primary-secondary-tertiary hierarchy of reality. The assumptions and operations of the economic system are nakedly insane.

The ability of nation-states to fulfill their social contracts is hollowing out in the face of diffuse and distributed enemies. Strength is weakness. Over a trillion dollars and a decade of nation-building can’t secure peace, but $50 and five men can without personal consequence blow up a water pipeline that shuts down a natural gas refinery for a week that powers a power plant that supplies electricity to oil export pumps, resulting in a few billion dollars worth of lost exports. The ROI of violence in an online networked open source world is enormous.2

The dominant ideology of our civilization is irrelevant, ruined.

We know what industrial-era engineering and technological endeavors look like. The ruins of the unsustainable surround us. The interesting question is this:

What does post-industrial, network culture, atemporal engineering look like?

The idea that history ended, and that the market sorts that out, and that the Pentagon bombs it if that doesn’t work – it’s gone. The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.”

“What we are facing over a decade is a decade of emergency rescue, of resiliency, of attempts at sustainability, rather than some kind of clear march toward advanced heights of civilization. We are into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures, of new social inventions within networks, a world of ‘Gothic High-Tech’ and ‘Favela Chic’ (as I’ve called it), a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity, rather than a cathedral of history, and a utopia of futurity.”3

Bruce Sterling is talking about Atemporality for the Creative Artist. I suspect that Atemporality for the Engineer will be similar.

Technical design and engineering in particular has been a pawn in the narrative of human ascendancy. The question is: what are we now? As progress, the nation-state, capitalism, and our economic systems are hollowing out and becoming their own punch lines, what is the role and relevancy of engineering? What does engineering look like that isn’t just one more rusty gear in the crumbling machine of the ruins of the enlightenment?


[1] The Day the Narrative Died.

[2] Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. By John Robb.

[3] Atemporality for the Creative Artist.

4 Responses to Atemporal Engineering

  1. Is engineering even meaningful in an atemporal world? Sterling has the brilliant illustration of the atemporal Feynman who can’t even get to writing down the problem. Does the word “engineer” lose its meaning if problems can’t be crisply defined?

    • flowxrg says:

      I think the meaning of the word “engineer” must (will? has? should?) evolve to a world where problems can’t be crisply defined. Engineers are problems solvers.. in a world where problems can’t be crisply defined, then engineers must become adept at providing things of value and addressing concerns in new ways. Once upon a time engineers would see a problem, write it down (define it), think about it, apply science & tech to it, and label it “solved”.

      From Bruce Sterling’s talk:

      ‘Step one – write problem in a search engine, see if somebody else has solved it already. Step two – write problem in my blog; study the commentory cross-linked to other guys. Step three – write my problem in Twitter in a hundred and forty characters. See if I can get it that small. See if it gets retweeted. Step four – open source the problem; supply some instructables to get me as far as I’ve been able to get, see if the community takes it any further. Step five – start a Ning social network about my problem, name the network after my problem, see if anybody accumulates around my problem. Step six – make a video of my problem. Youtube my video, see if it spreads virally, see if any media convergence accumulates around my problem. Step seven – create a design fiction that pretends that my problem has already been solved. Create some gadget or application or product that has some relevance to my problem and see if anybody builds it. Step eight – exacerbate or intensify my problem with a work of interventionist tactical media. And step nine – find some kind of pretty illustrations from the Flickr ‘Looking into the Past’ photo pool.’

      So, old Feynman, who was not the atemporal Feynman, would naturally object: ‘You have not solved the problem! You have not advanced scientific knowledge. There is no progress in this. You didn’t get to Step three – solving the problem.’ Whereas, the atemporal Feynman would respond: ‘It’s worse than that. I haven’t even done step one of defining the problem and writing it down. But I have done a lot of work about its meaning, and its value and its social framing, combined with some database mining, and some collaborative filtering, which is far beyond you and your pencil.’

      Maybe this – or something like this – is exactly what engineers need to be more adept at. We spent a lot of time over the past 200 years “solving” problems: we solved transportation problems with the automobile, we solved warfare with nuclear weapons and FAE bombs, we solved energy problems with coal-fired, nuclear powered, or hydroelectric power plants. All “solutions” that we’re now freaking out over how to fix. (and yes, we also solved a bunch of unambiguously good problems, like smallpox etc). Maybe new approaches to Step 1 are exactly what we need to fold into the practice.

      So – I don’t thing atemporality causes engineering to lose it’s meaning, but I do think that it will cause the meaning to morph.

  2. Keekai Solrain says:

    End of one era, the beginning of another – hard to see what’s over the horizon, and we haven’t yet collectively defined the new era. We’re in a grand state of change – still – and I can’t believe anyone knows the form the new world we’re giving birth to will take… we have inklings – distributed systems over collaborative networks, less value in “silos” of knowledge, prosperity defined on collective improvement rather than individual… when “defining the problem” is the problem at hand… are we just seeing the world through the lens we’re used to as engineers? and need to stop trying to make problems out of everything? screw progress! (in the current meaning of the word) as devoted tool users, humans will always be engineers! creative developers and users of technology… but to what end? why do a thing? will my dog be better for it? the real difference in culture (may it be so) will be valuing cooperation above competition – not just in human affairs but in simply how we approach living on this planet… turn the industrial concept on its head – no hierarchy or domination, but coexistence, coevolution!!!

  3. flowxrg says:

    Keekai – two things, to riff off your great thoughts:

    It’s been said that in crisis or times of upheaval, a *new* way of organization isn’t invented: the best ideas that are laying around are picked up and used. So it’s the groundwork and intellectual sweat done before the crisis that really helps effect what direction the shift occurs in.

    That being said, I certainly don’t think anyone or group of people will be able to design the revolution. Whatever social organization arises will be emergent: for many reasons, but a big one I think is just a property of network culture (assuming the networks persist through the rough times, which I actually think they will).

    Networks challenge/obseletize hierarchy; I for one welcome our new omni-networked non-hierarchical loving overlords who are us… 😉

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