Nerds Becoming Tools

I roll my eyes at skyscrapers, looking down (while looking up) at their ostentatious display.  They are the MySpace of architecture; scandalous pursuits of the nouveau rich.  Of course, I do have substantive objections (see this post), but mostly: they’re gaudy.

However, they have a deep appeal to my inner engineer.  Building in extreme environments is a challenge that requires creativity and a lot of technical skill.  And half a mile above the ground, where windspeeds skyrocket, is certainly an extreme environment.  It’s all very exciting.

Which is problematic.  It’s very easy for engineers to get lost in the fun of pushing the limits of their field, and ignore the moral/political implications of their work.  Partially this is because engineering programs have more in common with trade schools than your standard liberal arts college.  You’re learning the theory and practice of a very specific industry and when you’re done, you go to work.  The relevance (or not) of classes to your eventual work colors your attitude towards them — unsurprisingly, GE philosophy, history, and policy courses get short shrift.  (And it doesn’t help that students are kept too busy and tired to engage in much critical thinking at all.)

Reinforcing this tendency is the culture of scientific neutrality, wherein those with technical knowledge abdicate their power to whoever happens to be ruling society at the moment.  Which has produced horrifying results: the Tuskegee Experiment, Manhattan Project, Nazi Eugenics, etc.

Not that skyscrapers = eugenics, but we’re similarly unconcerned with the moral implications.  And I’m guilty too — if I got assigned to a tower project, I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling my boss ‘no’.  Worse, engineering companies work on prisons and military buildings, and I would be loath to contribute to the police state.  But I would, becuase I’m young and I have no power and I need my job.

Of course, this is part of a larger problem: We fight for freedom and democracy in the political sphere, but throw it away at 8am every day when we go to work, accepting that the larger part of our efforts to do something in this world will be according to the wishes of someone else.  But I will leave my thoughts on economic democracy for another time.  Creating another world is the project of a lifetime, and we need an interim solution.

Engineers have to say No.  We are not helpless proles, living hand to mouth, always on the precipice of ruin.  To the contrary, we are paid well and have extensive job security.  If we can’t say no to a shitty project, then no one can.  If we can’t refuse to be destructive forces, then the world is doomed.

There are few justifications for being a tool.  Fear of violence and fear of starvation are acceptable answers — yet people risk those things all the time as part of movements for change.  Fear of losing your exurban house and sports car are not — yet they cause so much inaction.

Maybe it’s just that engineers are rich professional who advocate for their class interests and rationalize their behavior with the trite “I had no choice.”  But I like to belive that people can transcend their class/race/gender and advocate for that which is objectively true/moral.  So I expect better from my peers.

Maybe I’ll start asking people what kind of projects they would refuse to do, though I’m worried many won’t have drawn a line.  In any case, this should produce interesting results and jump right to the heart of the subject/object roles of engineers.  I’ll discuss this more in the future…

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