Why Engineers Make Good Dissidents

Dissident: adj: disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief; A person who actively challenges an established doctrine, policy, or institution.

[tl;dr: A skill fundamental to the art of engineering is questioning assumptions. All human systems (mechanical, economic, political, social) are built on assumptions: ferreting out and critiquing assumptions is a skill native to the engineer, a skill that is now more than ever relevant to the task of remaking civilization.]

First Things First: Engineers = Assholes

Have you ever been telling a story or sharing your opinion on a topic in a social setting, when out of the blue you are interrupted by some asshole who attacks the validity and/or logic of the basis of your arguments? Chances are that asshole is an engineer doing one of the things engineers do best: questioning assumptions.

One of the reasons why engineers can be one of the most annoying types of people to have conversations with is the same reason why I think they have the potential to make terrific dissidents and critical thought leaders. Good engineers are good at questioning assumptions. It is one of the core skills that separate the elite problem solvers and innovators from interchangeable spreadsheet jockeys.

Questioning assumptions is fundamental to the art of engineering. This isn’t to say that assumptions are bad. Quite the opposite, in fact: assumptions are a necessary cognitive mechanism that allow problems to be solved. It is the quality of assumption that engineers are concerned with. Is the assumption a good one or a bad one? Are the set of assumptions complete and relevant to the context of the problem?

Good vs. Bad Assumptions

Good assumptions set up the approach to a problem and allow the engineer to focus thought in an effective manner. They cut away distracting and irrelevant information and allow core issues to be dealt with efficiently.

Bad assumptions do one of two things: they either lead to wasted effort on inconsequential analysis, or they cause an engineer to skip over critical issues that result in design errors and omissions. Depending on the project, the consequences of poor assumptions range from getting stuck in analysis paralysis, to catastrophic — potentially fatal — design flaws.

[The St. Francis dam collapse killed 450+ people in 1928.]

Forget that saying about assumptions making an ass out of you and me: assumptions are critical components of design and analysis.  Thinking about, analyzing, and being hyper-aware of assumptions is hard-coded into the engineer’s brain through both training and hard-won experience. This is why engineers will interrupt people at dinner parties and attack the presuppositions implicit in their statements; they really can’t help themselves, and in fact letting a poor assumption slide is anathema to an engineer’s core ethos. It would be like a doctor sauntering past a wounded man on the side of the road.

The difference is that people will (rightly) hail the doctor a hero for saving the man’s life; the engineer calling people out on their bogus intellectual shortcuts is often described as “an asshole”. (Rightly.)

What does this have to do with dissidence? Is that even a word?

The social mannerisms of engineers is a subject that will have to wait for a later post. Being labeled a bunch of arrogant assholes is a burden we engineers will likely have to bear for some time to come.

Regardless, we engineers need to step up. There are enormous problems facing our world and a huge amount of work that needs to be done in a short amount of time. Most people are aware of these problems, but there are a lot of really crappy assumptions embedded in the public discourse. The following are generalizations, but they are telling:

  • The renewable energy camp appears to assume that wind+solar+tide+etc will be able to replace the density and quality of energy provided by fossil fuels.
  • The hybrid/electric car camp appears to assume that ubiquitous automobile ownership can and will play a predominate role in a sustainable future.
  • Capitalists appear to assume that an economic system based on limitless growth on a finite planet can somehow reach a sustainable resource consumption level.
  • A majority of first-worlders appear to assume that mild lifestyle changes and green consumerism can lead to a sustainable world.
  • Many U.S. politicians appear to assume that a patriarchal approach to foreign policy is a responsible means of leading a country and caring for a citizenship.
  • Many developers appear to assume that tall, all-glass buildings with no consideration of location or orientation is a reasonable method of constructing buildings.
  • Tons of people within the architecture and engineering profession appear to assume that less bad is the same as sustainable.

These are all assumptions that need some hard-core questioning. These aren’t going unchallenged currently — there are a lot of really smart people out there doing great critical work on these issues, in particular Tom Murphy over at Do the Math — but engineers as a group aren’t pulling their weight. Scoffing privately at the assumptions we read about in the papers and hear on the news isn’t good enough.

Our civilization is hurtling towards the brink and anyone who can level sound critical thought at the insane, deeply flawed strategies being proposed as solutions needs to do so. We engineers need to channel our inner asshole, for the sake of humanity.

So Why Aren’t Engineers More Active?

Engineers appear to have the ability to be good dissidents, activists, and critical thought leaders, and there is clearly a vast body of work that we could jump in on. So why aren’t we? The majority of us engineers are just doing our thing, advancing our careers, living our lives. Apolitical, more or less.

The reason we’re not agitating for change is pretty obvious: we’re historically well-off. We’re employed. The system takes good care of us. We can get jobs. If we don’t like the job we have, we can go get another one somewhere else. We have no skin in the game. Why would we agitate for change? Things are going pretty well for us.

Engineering unemployment is on the rise, however it’s a recent trend. Most engineers are employed and doing all right. Those engineers unable to stay in industry are retiring or drifting off into other means of income generation. The situation is thought to be temporary, a simple economic downturn that will reverse eventually. There has been no sense that the system is dysfunctional for engineers, no mass dawning awareness or real anger that we engineers are getting screwed over by the system. Because, by and large, we aren’t.

resistance is fertile[I’ll say it if no one else has the balls: We are the borg.]

We’ve become assimilated. We’re part of the system. We’re cogs in the machine of industrial resource extraction and consumerism. We need to break out. I expect that engineers will start to radicalize as their comfortable position in industrial society begins to erode, but I don’t think we have time to wait for that to happen. Besides, now is the time for action, not reaction.

Towards a New Engineering Ethos

I want us as a group to evolve a new engineering ethos, one based within an understanding of the social, economic, political, and most importantly ecological context we find ourselves in. We can no longer concern ourselves only with the narrow technical fields in which we find ourselves; our understanding of reality needs to broaden, and our actions need to reflect our understanding.

You can’t keep a rapacious industrial civilization running without engineers. I suspect that you can’t build or maintain an ecotechnic, resilient, and sustainable civilization without engineers, either. I am certain that engineers will play no role whatsoever on a world where the air can no longer be breathed by humans.

We need to understand that we’re faced with a choice, that the time is short, and that there is no such thing as not making a decision.

What happens when the engineers take to the streets? What happens when the engineers mobilize and ruthlessly question assumptions and apply systems thinking to a nightmarishly dysfunctional system? When we join in solidarity with the rest of the populations of the earth already agitating for a better world?
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