My Fellow Engineers, It Is Time For the Greatest Invention of All
Engineering Reality 101
Every day, scores of engineers pick up where they left off the night before. The range of work is impressive, and can only be described by example— writing software, testing automobiles, upgrading power grids, designing bridges, automating vehicles, maintaining website reliability, designing flight system architectures, developing computer processors, and so on. Their collective work can be said to unite our scientific and technical knowledge to create newer technologies.
Cultural critic Neil Postman described a technopoly as “a culture that seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology.” Technopolies, such as the one we inhabit today, do not fall out of the sky. They are methodically created by profit and rent-seeking capital, with the cooperation of servile governments. This system deploys various technologies in immoral, or at best, amoral directions for profit and power. As I have previously covered in The Free-Market Fraud: Tech Innovation and Alternatives, political and economic forces act on otherwise promising technology to create mutations that serve existing state and corporate systems.
Given the pervasive influence of technology on culture and society, the poverty of thought amongst engineers regarding the power systems under which they operate is disappointing. Through time, engineers have created some brilliant technologies. Should the discipline be overhauled from education to industry, to defiantly challenge state and corporate power and practice engineering on a tactical and virtuous plane, engineers might aid in inventing the greatest creation of all — a post-capitalist, moral society.
Origins of Service
Originally, the term engineer was used only in the context of military and warfare. Dating back to the early 14th century, it referred to a constructor and operator of military engines, or machines of war. Such engines included offensive weaponry like catapults, or strategic equipment such as siege engines that allowed invading armies to breach large walls and other defensive structures.
From engineering, the term civil engineering entered language as the discipline expanded to civic structures. This differentiated engineers who focused on military problems from civil engineers who worked on structures such as bridges. As the number of disciplines expanded, the original meaning of engineer became obsolete. Military engineering may be used today for the original purpose.
The mechanization of war, invasion and murder by despotic rulers was enabled by the technical prowess of the first engineers. This larger trend continues till present day. Engineers have diligently and indifferently served private and state power in countless ways. A few examples follow.
Clever defeat devices allow automakers to pass emissions tests for vehicles that violate limits by a factor of 40. In a turn of events, the next trick is to deliberately and miserably fail emissions tests so as to lift the baseline for the 2020 emissions standards to be set in the EU.
Corporate owners were served in their mission to maximize fossil fuel production, despite internal company knowledge of strong links between carbon concentration and global temperature increases as early as 1977, potentially leading to climate breakdown. When the consequences hit, the same owners will not be taking any ownership of the problems. They will instead retreat to their private Elysium.
Aloofly helping state agencies spy on domestic and foreign citizens, a feat simply not possible without the cooperation of detached engineers.
Educating For Obedience
The journey to trace all economic and political forces that produce such an army of hardworking, talented and dispassionate workers must begin at education. In The Cruel Education Farce: American Democracy and Alternatives, I have already covered how corporate ideology shapes education, engineering or otherwise. Here is a summary:
- Education must be regarded as a system that produces professionals, nothing more, nothing less. The capital class avails of the services of the knowledge class to generate more wealth by developing or privatizing intellectual property, developing technologies for short-term profits, and other renegade adventures. For this purpose, it is paramount to cultivate an obedient, unquestioning and diligent workforce. Referring to the routine churning of thousands of students a year who yearn for a place in the labor market as education is an abuse of the word. This is specialization.
- Another demand is that students internalize the individualistic doctrine of our present-day global capital markets, or as Adam Smith described in Wealth of Nations, “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” The maxim commands society to relentlessly scratch and claw to find a place in the knowledge class or the capital class, gaining wealth, forgetting all but self. A consequence of this maxim is that no intrinsic personhood remains, and the only extrinsic value that can be gained in society is by specializing and finding a place in the labor markets.
- The most expansive and insidious of all consequences is that such an approach to education results in transforming young minds into compliant members of society, deprived of even a possibility to consider broader political, economic and social questions in a democratic society.
Particularly for the engineering student, the aforementioned specialization forces are perhaps one of the strongest. Within existing capitalist structures, highly technical tuition is not complemented with critiques of how we wield our technical capabilities.
Lest these docile soldiers begin asking too many questions, it is best to only burden them with technical questions of mathematics and science. Perhaps throw in an obligatory Engineering Ethics 101 class.
Implicitly instilled in the student’s mind is a staunch belief that newer technologies will ultimately bring about a utopia. This ignores the fact that just the technologies of today can solve most of our global problems, should the prohibitive financial and political institutions be challenged and radically changed. Conversely, no amount of technical innovation will address the systemic issues that generate these problems in the first place.
This results in an engineering brain-trust that is generally unable to think beyond technical solutionism. Not without cause, this ideology mirrors the one propagated by business interests.
If engineers shed these ideologies, we can begin looking at ways to apply our creative and technical skills for the true betterment of our communities, both local and global. Part of this is to analyze what prevents us from doing so. Here, it is a good idea to study the origins of our scientific research, and technical capabilities. As covered,
The science and engineering of new inventions and discoveries are not so trivial that they can be spearheaded by a few capital cowboys in a Wild Wild West of technical orgy. The basis for all our high-tech economy lies in the state, with very long timeframes and large costs no venture capitalist with a requirement for a quick return can tolerate. These are R&D programs funded by various state agencies and its branches, including the Pentagon, NASA, EPA and so on. Examples are too numerous to state. Some include space technologies, GPS, self-driving cars, cameras, indeed the internet itself. A closer look reveals that the military and war is intrinsic to high-tech research. […] After the long and expensive road to discoveries and inventions has been paved by public funds, corporations and other private entities are invited to waltz down the road to productize and monetize. Intellectual property, belonging to the public and built off of years of research, engineering and test work, is pushed to private markets to be developed into products, often with little differentiation.
The basic research to enable these technologies is already largely communal, as taxpayer funding amalgamates with labor. However, the ownership of further development is then concentrated into a few hands, which breeds highly distorted and damaging versions of otherwise promising products and technologies. If the engineers, designers, planners, supply-chain managers and other employees collectively owned the outputs of their work through co-operatives, decision-making would reflect that accordingly.
This brings us to worker cooperatives, wherein the workers own the business and participate in decision-making processes as well — formulating strategy and executing on it. This alternative community organization would coexist with urban councils and planning committees as part of local and state governments. Political economist and historian Gar Alperovitz roundly covers the existence of such economic democracy in some parts of the US in his book What Then Must We Do?
Moreover, some features can be borrowed and implemented in existing institutions, such as worker and engineering representation on corporate boards, and engineering unions. Along the lines of the Union of Concerned Scientists, far-reaching engineering federations can also be formed to combat reckless development and criminal use of technology, billionaire vanity projects, planned obsolescence, and other outcomes of concentrated economic and political power. It is not surprising that technologies are deployed to benefit a few under such a system.
There have been many encouraging signs of resistance. Organizations such as Tech Workers Coalition aim to unite tech workers to fight for “worker power through rank and file self-organization and education.” In essence, this exposes technology elites’ true goals to maximize profit at all costs, despite professed lofty ideals. It organizes tech workers to change corporate decisions in an effort to actually utilize technologies in socially beneficial and technically sound ways.
When Google employees refuse to work on projects of imperialist war for the Pentagon, when yet another group of Google employees protest the development of an Orwellian search engine for China, when Microsoft employees protest the company’s projects with the proto-fascist Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE) and a similar protest is mounted by Amazon employees, these are signals for greater involvement by the technology creators themselves to work towards democratic management and community involvement.
The life-saving potential of MRI machines is structurally limited by an international scandal of a healthcare system with skyrocketing costs and substandard outcomes. Automobiles made for their own sake, compromising public transportation projects and careful urban planning, do not magically spawn sustainable transport systems. No amount of advanced weaponry can curb terrorism if, among other reasons, that weaponry is sold to terrorists. Social media, hypothesized to be emancipatory and empowering, only turns into a tool for distortion, surveillance and censorship if a small number of owners command it to be so.
The creators of these otherwise amoral technologies must exert their influence and band together to wrestle control for democratic, sensible and moral deployment of various products and services. It may be easy to imagine the destruction of the planet because of climate change, nuclear warfare and rapid resource depletion. It may be hard to imagine a post-capitalist world where technology councils, democratic policy centers and communities work together to create a just and moral society. If so, then I suggest you put some of that renowned Engineer’s Imagination to work.