Jan 25, 2014

How Profit-Obsessed Engineers Engineer Ignorance

As an Engineer by academic background, I have always proudly showcased my obsession with recognizing problems and thinking of ways to solve them. Engineering is synonymous with problem solving and efficiency. But what if not all problems or processes should be solved or made efficient? What if these modern-day efficiencies and engineering “hacks” simply hide the moral, ethical and social dilemmas and impacts of our decisions? What if these solutions are also eliminating the element of surprise, curiosity and diversity of experience? What if same-day delivery by Amazon’s drones is a solution to a non-existent problem?
Of course engineering has revolutionized every corner of our lives to the better from safety, pleasure, comfort to better health and productivity. However, this very increasing disruption or “hacking” of life by engineers that dates back to the early days of human civilizations has its hidden cost: ignorance. To use an extreme example, having access to fresh clean water in the comfort of our homes is way better than having to walk to a river or a lake (often many miles away) everyday to bring water, shower or wash our clothes. Very few people would want to go back to the pre-plumbing days. However, this comfort we enjoy also blinds us from the realities and thoughts of nature and the limited resource that is water. By paying for water in money, it simply allows us the luxury of not having to think about where it comes from and how it gets to us. The same is true for trash. The fact that we can put our trash in a large bin and is collected by city sanitation services (paid for by our taxes) blinds us from how all that trash is truly discarded. As such, very little thought goes through our heads when throwing stuff away. If we did not have this luxury of course, we would be much more mindful of how much we consume, buy, and / or throw away. These advances, though necessary and good, often shield us from personal sacrifice and subjective thinking about the larger impacts of our consumption habits.
An engineer is a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems. Engineers design materials, structures, and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost.[1][2]The word engineer is derived from the Latin roots ingeniare (“to contrive, devise”) and ingenium (“cleverness”)
Also, engineering as a profession has often blindly followed the compulsive and irrational desires of the “free” market, sometimes even sacrificing efficiency and ingenuity in the process, for higher monetary or status returns. For example, instead of making fuel efficient cars, American car companies until recently were building large SUVs (anyone remember the Hummer?), because that’s what the irrational market was demanding at the time until oil prices went up and now all we see are smaller hybrid cars. By “following the money”, engineers have also increasingly focused on solving problems for the wealthy and affluent segments of the population. Further, through over-patenting, the medical engineering industry or Big Pharma have increasingly targeted diseases and conditions with higher Return On Investment (ROI) and ignoring most complex and rare diseases. It’s sad and unfortunate that in America, smarts, ingenuity, solutions and talent will follow only where money and capital go even if it means going against the principles of engineering and making less efficient vehicles and products.

More alarming is that today’s new generation of Silicon Valley engineers are eroding and replacing the pleasure of surprise fueled by curiosity, imagination and anticipation with the short-lived pleasure of instant gratification flued by compulsive consumption technology and apps. Who wants to have sex these days when they can easily with a few clicks, access millions of porn videos? Who wants to be in a relationship or a real friendship when with one facebook post or tweet we can receive virtual attention or “likes”? Who wants to learn anything when Google has all the answers (my 60 year old former manager who just started dating again, Googled how intimate he should be with his significant other after two months of dating and complained when his current situation with her did not match what Google recommended).

We need a new generation of Engineers who do not simply follow the money to the casinos of Wall Street, the mind-numbing, efficiency industrial complex of consulting or advertising-hackathon nerd resorts of Silicon Valley. We need a new generation who see problems not from the prism of advertising dollars, instant-gratification-consumption or “cool” apps, but rather, Engineers who tackle problems of need of the majority instead of non-problems of want of the minority elite. The next revolution won't be tweeted or facebooked and the cure for poverty, cancer, education, obesity will sure as hell not come out of Apple’s App store or Silicon Valley’s Ad-Obsessed R&D departments (maybe GoogleX, though i doubt it). Engineering needs to go back to its roots to target complex and fundamental societal problems that often require more than just over-rational and narrow-minded programmers and mathematicians.

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