Re-conceptualising engineers and engineering practice

Format: Panel discussion

  1. Panelists: Usman Mushtaq & Amir Hossein Nosrat
    Affiliation: Queen’s University, Canada
    Title: Engineers as Ethical Artisans
    Abstract: Until the industrial revolution of Europe and the subsequent colonization of much of the world by post-industrial European countries, artisanship or the creation of a quality-focused and context-dependent product by a skilled creator was the norm of production. Creative control of the product by the artisan allowed them to treat their creation as a whole. Products created by an artisan were not only a piece of technology but an expression of the will, dreams, and contexts of the creator. Technology added to the culture of its creator as opposed to replacing it. This ethics of artisanship regulated the technology that was produced and the way in which it was produced. However with the coming of mechanization and industrialization, artisanship was replaced by a division of labour that shifted the role of human beings from creators to workers. Workers were no longer connected to their creations. These creations, in turn, were no longer an extension of their creators leading to the disruption of culture and human life. Similarly, engineers have often been more workers than artisans. This has led to many of the technology crisis we face today from climate change, to rampant high civilization, to the unintended consequences of technology. The value of the ethics of artisanship has been completely forgotten. This paper proposes that engineers should reapply the ethics of artisanship to their work. To that end, this paper first identifies the ethics of artisanship before arguing for the lack of this ethics in current engineering work. The value of applying such an ethics to engineering is then discussed. Finally, some potential examples of how engineers may apply the ethics of artisanship are illustrated in order to provide a clear way towards an ethics of artisanship in engineering.
  2. Panelist: Doug Foster
    Affiliation: University of Surrey, UK
    Title: Socially Useful Production and Beyond as an Answer to a Question Concerning Technology
    Abstract: The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that one of what he calls characters in 19th century Britain was the Engineer (MacIntyre, 1985, p. 28).  This is not to be confused with the idea of leadership, at least in its narrower sense. Such characters, so conceived, are not only a psychological match for their social role in terms of their values, but are ‘objects of regard’ within their culture or at least an aspect of it.  Yet the history of technological ‘advance’ has so often featured the development of systems and re-constructed materials of mass destruction either within naive values of neutrality (what Arendt, 1963, called the ‘banality of evil’ – e.g. engineers being entirely focused on a job, making the product as excellent for its purpose as possible – whilst unfortunately that purpose is as a Concentration Camp) or even blatantly belligerent ethics (more recent claims have suggested that many Nazi engineers, rather than ‘banal were enthusiastic Jew eliminators and revellers in the destructive capacity of their work – Cesarani, 2005; Sennett, 2009 – exhibiting, perhaps, the ‘creativity of evil’).  This paper will explore whether Heidegger’s questioning in respect of technology will help us re-think engineering practice (Heidegger, 1977), but also note that at times, and for some while, engineers own version of questioning as practitioners has attempted to re-invent technology towards social purpose (Collective Design/Projects, 1985).  Such activity has the potential to challenge mainstream engineering with ever growing conviction.  Following the recent development of the Social Entrepreneur (Leadbeater, 1997; Nicholls, 2008) then, the possibility of the Social Engineer as a character seems evident.  This is not social engineering in the former sense of state and corporate bureaucrats manipulating from above, but those of a more libertarian philosophy on the ground. Further, the development of socially purposeful engineering and the Social Engineer may help create a counter-culture Gramsci (1971) that not only promotes new distinctly committed engineering firms, but that combats socially inconsiderate or destructive engineering.
  3. Panelist: Usman Mushtaq
    Affiliation: Queens University, Canada
    Title: Anti-oppressive engineering
    Abstract: While engineers and their funders have always claimed that technology has advanced the common good, more often than not engineers have been mercenaries for those at the core of knowledge and power: the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected. Engineers have designed technology that has marginalized certain types of knowledge, people, and culture in favour of those at the core. This has happened not only at the level of impact but also in the way technology is designed. Far from being a common good, engineered
    systems have advanced social and environmental inequity by being designed within exploitative social, political, and economic systems. In response to the negative impacts of engineered systems, the engineering profession through various professional bodies has committed to being much more socially and environmentally responsible. However, the discourse of responsibility adopted by the profession is narrow in scope as it does not recognize the context in which technology is designed, the methods through which it is designed, nor how technology may be used in oppressive systems such as neoliberal capitalism or settler nation-states. In addition, the responsibility is to minimize the damage caused by engineered systems as opposed to using technology to create more equitable power and knowledge relations. To counter this discourse, a framework of design is proposed, in which the technology produced by engineers not only minimizes damage but seeks to create more equity in our communities through valuing complexity, participation, anti-capitalism, contextualization/localization, culture, decentralization, and humility. This paper will explore this framework drawing from various sources such an anarchist theory, ecofeminism, and STS to propose a method of engineering, which values non-oppression both in process and as an end.