Sunday, June 19, 2011

On "The Existential Pleasure of Engineering"

I've read "The Existential Pleasure of Engineering" by Samuel Florman quite a few times over my engineering career. (I suggest reading the book if you are an engineer or if you're interested in the question what is the essence of technology.) I've always been a fan of the fact that he stood up for engineering when the profession was being attacked (philosophically) by all sorts of anti-technologists during the 1970's. He wrote the book in 1976 in the midst of what he called the Dark Age. Even though I tend to disagree with his main conclusion (i.e. that we should do engineering from the mere existential pleasure of engineering), I think that Florman does a really good job of presenting the arguments of the anti-technologists before dissecting them apart.

So, I'd like to summarize his book so as entice you to read it if you haven't already.

Ch1: "What was Troy to this?"
Engineers from 1850 to 1950 (i.e. the Golden Age of Engineering) worked in a bubble in which their profession was highly praised by poets and the public alike. For example, poet Percy MacKaye wrote, "Where the tribes of man are led towards peace / By the prophet-engineer."
Florman: "The engineer's works would also contribute to brotherhood by literally bringing men closer together...In short, engineers of the Golden Age were not at a loss for intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual gratifications to go along with their often not inconsiderable tangible rewards."

Ch2: Decline & Fall
"It [is] apparent that engineering's Golden Age ended abruptly about 1950, and that the profession, for all its continuing technical achievements, finds itself at the present time in a Dark Age of the spirit." What led to this decline and fall?  (Nuclear Armageddon, H-bombs, radioactive fall out from nuclear weapons testing, Korean & Vietnam war stagnation, Silent Spring, The Waste Makers, Unsafe at Any Speed, The River Killers, The Limits to Growth)

Ch3: Conscience, Error & Responsibility
"Suggestions were made that our problems would go away if only engineers would become more moral. The environmental crisis would never have occurred, so the reasoning goes, if engineers had only given warning and refused to work on evil projects. Editorials and sermons now call upon the engineer to develop a conscience so that the world can be saved." But "Civilized men had long recognized that laws and regulations, mutually agreed upon, are the only sound protection for society against the self-interest of each of us...We are agreed that we want to do the right thing. But how are we to determine what the right thing is? The thought of engineers designing and manufacturing weapons of war is horrifying to some of us, but many engineers consider such activity necessary and proper for the sake of freedom and national security...Many engineers consider it wrong to act the role of a Temperance Society, seeking to deprive people of products they desire, or even to drive prices sky-high by building in fail-safe features which people do not want...that a totally safe car will encourage reckless driving. We will search in vain for a single engineering moral absolute acceptable to the entire profession...Engineers are conservatives and radicals, hawks and doves, idealists and pragmatists. We are not talking about good versus bad. We are confronted by a multitude of good objectives competing for limited resources, and present needs conflicting with obligations to the future. The big questions of what to do next are not technical, or only partly technical. They are primarily political." In summary: We can't even agree upon scientific facts, let alone agree upon of want is the good life. "With the religion of Progress lying in ruins about us, we engineers will have to relinquish, once and for all, the dream of priest-hood, and seek to define our lives in other terms."

Ch4: Anti-technology
Florman summarizes the main arguments of the anti-technologsists
1) "Technique" has run amok, it has become a Frankenstein monster that cannot be controlled. Technology is a 'thing' or a 'force' with an existence of its own. Lewis Mumford says: "Not merely does technology claim priority in human affairs: it places the demands for constant technological change above any considerations of its own efficiency, its own continuity, or even, ironically enough, its own capacity to survive."

2) Man is an animal whose basic nature is best suited in the forests and fields, and not suited for life in a technological world. The average citizen is a helpless slave to technology, driven by this force to perform work he detests. According to Theodore Reich: " [we are] prisoners of the technological state, exploited by its economy, tied to its goals, regimented by its factories and offices, deprived of all those sides of life which find no functional utility in the industrial machine." The office is devoid of organic content. Technological man has become denatured, that is to say, dehumanized. According to Rene Dubos: "Modern man is anxious, even during peace and in the midst of economic affluence because the technological world that constitutes his immediate environment, by separating him from the natural world under which he evolved, fails to satisfy certain of his unchangeable needs."
3) The average person is driven to consume things he does not want. The consumer buys, not what he truly needs or desires, but rather what technology spews forth. It is not the psychic or mental well being of humans, but the uninterrupted flow of 'goods' that technology demands. Technology inhibits our emotional development.
4) Technology creates an elite class of technocrats, and so disenfranchises the masses. The Establishment uses technology to control the masses. Technology = Aristocracy. And democracy is a mere appearance. Technocrats sits top of citadel of expertise

Florman then discusses the underlying goals of some anti-technologies:
Yearning for life in a) a primitive tribe, b) the peasant community and c) medieval society. A yearning for life "built around the rhythms of the earth and his mental stability upon the constancies of nature." (As stated by Theodore Reich) The Medieval Equilibrium between rural and urban, between organic and the mechanical, between the static and the dynamic.

Ch5: "I Refute it Thus"
1) Man is by nature a technological animal. To be human is to be technological.
 The engineer did not create in people the desire to move quickly and independently from one place to another. Nobody wants traffic jams, accidents, and pollution, but we all want to get places as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible.The side effects are purely due to human decisions, not mandated by some outside force.

2) Technology is not an external deterministic force. It is the human spirit that makes demands of the engineer. People who buy cars and electric can openers could have chosen to buy oboes and oil paints. "Indeed, would not a man prefer being called vulgar to being told he has no will with which to make choices of his own?" Technology could help bring people closer to nature, if that is what they want. As Saul Bellows wrote: "A million years passed before my soul was let out into the technological world. That world was filled with ultra-intelligent machines, but the soul after all was a soul, and it had waited million years for its turn and did not intend to be cheated of its birthright by a lot of mere gimmicks. It had come from the far reaches of the universe, and it was interested but not overawed by these inventions."
 3) "Job discontent is not currently high on the list of American social problems." Most people seem to prefer to escape the from the drudgery of the farm. What is natural vs. unnatural?
 4) The techno-elite are trying to fulfill the multitude of demands from the people. Technology often makes it harder for the authoritarian regimes to control the people. The Arab Spring comes to mind.

Ch6: A Dangerous Delusion
In summary: there are more and more people with more and more desires. This is not caused by technology, but is rather a consequence of what man is. Contemporary man is not content because he wants more than he can have. He will taste new fruits, forbidden though they may be. People want food, housing, washing machines, fine china, handsome clothes, and an education. "The anti-technologies say that technology is leading us astray, but the people have heard that story before. Man has not come this far through the evolutionary furnace to settle for a bucolic idyll."  As in the song: "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Paree?", mankind has a natural desire to be curious and to demand the most out of life.  "Will, or life-force, or human nature--call it whatever you like--is what is at the root of our problems. Technology is merely one expression of this force. It is illogical to place blame on technology."
We all want to travel to Disneyland or National Parks at the same days. There are more and more people with more and more desires. We need to avoid the Buddhist fear of desire and instead we need to embrace the fact that wants of things will always outnumber actual things. This is okay. We should not fear our desires of more and more things.
(My questions: How many of the anti-technologists are really anti-evolution, i.e. against the idea that the point of life is to expand through a competitive/cooperative dynamic of natural selection? Trial and error is a part of evolution; it is a part of democracy; and it's an integral part of our technological society.) As Florman says: "Even if we had the omniscience to foresee the consequences of all our acts, we would founder on our inability to agree on what man is and what he wants, what he will be and what he will want."

Ch7: Of Dullards and Demigods

Summary: Engineers aren't dull and engineering can be quite an exciting profession.
 "Engineering is fun!"    Florman's response to people who think engineers lack a "visionary energy" is the following:  "See here, Roszak, what makes you think that you have any sort of prior claims on visonary energy? Have you ever stopped to consider that those of us who are engineers relate to the world in ways that are not purely cerebral? Perhaps we live in closer touch with 'the natural continuum' than most people do, including most philosophers. Our lives are full of emotional experiences about which you know nothing. So do not seek to heal our wounds of psychic alienation until you have proof that we have suffered them. Perhaps we can teach you and your hip friends something about the good life."

So far I like where Florman is going. In Chapters 1 through 3 he states the problem (Engineers have been dislodged from their throne of the Golden Age). In Ch 4, he states the arguments for anti-technology, and then debunks them in Chapters 5 though 7. But from here on out, he attempts to argue that the engineer should do his job out of the shear existential pleasure of it. His arguments in this part of the book are not as strong as in the first seven chapters, but I'll quickly summarize because we must all ask the question: why am I doing what I'm doing? And if you are an engineer, the question is: why should I be an engineer?

Ch8:Towards an Existential Philosophy of Engineering

"The very climate of disillusionment and alienation that brought about the end of engineering's Golden Age, furthered the growth of existentialism." Florman attempts to show that existentialism and engineering are not quite as separate as one might initially suspect. While I don't necessarily agree with his arguments here, Florman didn't mention what seems to be for me one of the main similarities between engineering and existentialism: a deep seated fear of 'isms' and fear of letting any one religion or political party control us with propaganda.
Even though the book title and this chapter are about 'existentialism', Florman some what confuses the term 'existentialism' with with the term 'materialism.' Existentialism and materialism are not one in the same. Most of this chapter is devoted to reminding us that the story-tellers before Socrates, Plato and Jesus were quite in love with material things, especially those make by fine craftsmen. Florman spends a lot of time quoting from The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Old Testament. But I think that there is a major difference between the materialism before Socrates, Plato & Jesus, and the existentialism of the 20th century. Most of the crafts detailed in Greek stories or in the Old Testament were fabricated for war or for religious reasons. The existentialism of the 20th century was largely about finding ways to avoid war by avoiding political 'isms' and religions. The idea was that if we could figure out how to experience the beauty and absurdity of life then we don't need to go to church or to fight against people of different faiths. There is very little in The Iliad, The Odyssey or The Old Testament to teach us how to appreciate the beauty and absurdity of life without gods or God, and very little to teach us how to avoid war. (Though, these works do have a lot to teach us about what it means to be human.)
So, while I find this chapter very interesting because I often forget just how much of our anti-materialism has its roots in the philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Jesus, I don't think that we should be glorifying pre-Socratic societies. We can't throw the baby out with the bathwater. There were no universal human rights in these societies. There was no science. There was no body of political laws that could even stand its ground compared to the US Constitution! It's hard to see how we would have eventually developed universal human rights without 'love your neighbor as yourself,' developed science without Aristotle, or developed the Constitution without the mixture of Jesus, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and the philosophers who followed in their footsteps.

Ch9: The Existential Engineer
This chapter tries to link the craftsmanship of the Pre-Socrates societies with today's engineer. Not the most exciting chapter.

Ch10: "Look Long on an Engine. It is Sweet to the Eyes."
This chapter tries to understand why there aren't more poems written about the beauty of the steam engine. Likewise, not the most exciting chapter.

Ch11: "Then I was Carried Beyond Pleasure."
This chapter reminds us that the engineer experiences pleasure in the beauty of physics, chemistry and mathematics. Likewise, not the most exciting chapter, but there's a good quote in this chapter: "Thomas Mann commented that Kafka meant to show how we 'arrive closer to God through leading a normal life,' enjoying 'the blessings of bourgeois society.' "  I find this quote interesting because I believe that there is spiritual fulfillment in hard work and finding a calling in life, and coming to an understanding that the goal of life is to expand life, and the only way to expand life is to work hard.

So, I think that there is a subtle difference between Florman and myself regarding the meaning of life. My understanding of his writing is that the goal of life should be to do what we find to be rewarding and that engineering is rewarding because science and math are cool, because material things are cool, and because helping other people fulfill their wants/desires/needs is cool. 

The question remaining in my mind is: should engineering be pursued for just the pleasure of it? Is engineering a selfish pursuit? I don't think that engineering is a purely selfish pursuit because I think that the goal of engineering is to expand life. And while there might not actually be as much difference between what Florman is saying and what I'm saying, I'm highlighting the difference because I think that there is too much emphasis today on maximizing pleasure. Utilitarianism is dead and was debunked hundreds of years ago. For some reason, it still lives on in parts of our society. If our ancestors always did want they considered to be spiritually, intellectually or materially pleasurable, then we would not have survived the evolutionary struggle that life is. We wouldn't be here today. Life expands through a dynamic of cooperation and competition. It's hard to see where pleasure for pleasure's sake fits in which life's goal of expanding.

Let me know what you think of this summary. And for those of you how have read "The Existential Pleasure of Engineering", let me know what you think about the book. Did you find that the book helped your explain to yourself why you are an engineer? Or why you aren't paranoid about technology running amok?

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