008: This Class Is Making Me Communist: A Phase One Reading Response

Overall I would break our phase one readings into a number of categories: on what it is to be an engineer, on specific innovations, on making and makers, and on cultural interactions with technology. Of course some readings spanned categories — Chris Anderson’s “Open Hardware” is both about the maker movement and the development of a specific DIYDrones product — but the major themes are clear.

What is Engineering?

To this category I would assign all the readings from Natasha McCarthy’s Engineering and “Engineer’s Imperialism.” From the former, chapter 3, “Core Elements in Engineering” drove home how similar the engineering design process is to the iterative user experience process I am familiar with from my own career. Also interesting was the discussion of the differences between risk to an engineer and to a layperson, especially the idea that laypeople have much less tolerance for risk whereas engineers are used to quantifying it and may take a more abstract approach.

However, the history of engineering, as covered in the other readings in this section was profoundly depressing — the field appears explicitly rooted in nineteenth-century “muscular masculinity” concepts of dominance that serve to both repel me and to undermine many of engineering’s claims towards “helping humanity.” Chapter 1 of Engineering harkens back to the field’s military origins and as “Engineers’ Imperialism” makes clear, the historical hubris of engineering is linked directly in its support of a violent and racist colonialism. The author notes that to the engineers ruling the Philippines, “subject people [were] viewed as a set of technological problems,” and this view is reflected in a lot of technologists attitudes today, only their fellow citizens are now the colonized.

On Specific Innovations

“America’s Assembly Line” bridges this category and the former, discussing both the development of the assembly line, as one of America’s greatest feats of engineering. Like many of the works we read, the historical insight seemed hampered by an unwillingness to really question capitalism and an over-identification with owners over workers. For instance, the author accuses workers of “hoarding” saved time as opposed to “sharing efficiency,” when the reverse, forcing workers to move just as fast no matter the machine assistance, could be seen as stealing the gains of efficiency from the workers and handing it, in the form of profit, to the owners. Likewise, focus on an “emergence” model, in which innovations “just happen,” as opposed to being planned for and researched, can work to remove responsibility for outcomes from the decisionmakers themselves — a questionable result.

An interesting line from here might be to compare the innovations and repercussions from R&D–focused companies, like Bell Labs, with more “emergent” innovations.

In a further look at worker-relations innovations, we had “Citizen’s Share.” This history of worker co-operatives started off rather optimistically, before being brought down by capitalism and over-sympathy for managers. It was glad to point out that inexperienced co-ops often folded for lack of experienced management but was conspicuously silent on the fact that the final outcome, where companies offer shares instead of true profit-sharing payouts, is really a way to mute worker protest by creating the illusion that they are invested in capitalism, though their power is so diluted, they end up having little meaningful say on broader actions. (They do note however that the preference for options comes in part because options didn’t involve actually paying out real money.)

More precise looks at innovations, “Facsimile and Networks” and “Bioprinting in Living Ink” were very interesting. The first focused on how context is important in innovation and part of a self-reinforcing system: covering technical and social elements that went into a fax machine, from newspapers through telephone deregulation. It skimped a little on the cultural reasons people might want individual machines — we are not all newspapers after all — but that is my only criticism. For “Bioprinting in Living Ink,” I would have liked to hear more about the ethics of the matter, but was captivated by the way biological integration demands leaving literal space for other organic items to grow into manufactured parts. Elaborating on this metaphor might help engineering consider a model of itself beyond dominance.

Makers and Making

Of course, another path leading away from the dominance road is the domestication of engineering via the maker and fab lab movements. In “How To Make,” Gershenfeld says of the fab lab’s pivotal first class: “Their inspiration wasn’t professional; it was personal. The goal was not to publish a paper, or file a patent, or market a product. Rather, their motivation was their own pleasure in making and using their inventions.”

Overall the entire tone of the article is utopian (and a little hand-wavy), but the optimism found in the possibility of broader expression for everyone was rather intoxicating. And then came the part where the fab lab successes seem to just be more “entrepreneurship”: people in poor place X could make things easier and make more money, now that they had these atom machines!

Here I do begin to wonder if I am being too cynical; tracking a herd more easily does seem like an awesome thing, and one I probably should not denigrate out of dislike of the tone in which the lab is wrapped. Then again, here comes open source software being used as an example. It has become clear through the past years that just being “open” has not democratized Linux or other projects, many of which have reputations for being unwelcoming to anyone other than white men. Will this be the same with hardware?

“Open Hardware” certainly continues by praising the “open” model, wherein you convince people to work for you for free or for trinkets, instead of hiring instead of just hiring people and supporting their community through developing junior engineers. Since the author was also the editor for Wired for many years, these ideas have been promulgated throughout our current technological discourse, possibly not for the best.

Technology and Society

The final category took a more nuanced look at human-technology interaction. “Three Product Designers at Work” provided a somewhat dated overview of different approaches engineers have taken in integrating computers with their work. As an introduction, though, the chapter sketched more questions than answers. “Designing Makerspaces for Family Learning ...” also proved to be light on details, though I was interested in the echo of fab lab results in reports of the affection for the “consequential products” they developed at the museum. I would have loved to hear more details about the labs, including deeper looks what people created.

Conclusion

In the end, my greatest takeaway is the engineering has a very anemic critical culture. While the information in the readings was cool, it was so clear from the tone that the weakest works were those that investigated cultural ramifications and many would sound completely tone-deaf in most humanities traditions of the past fifty years. I hope engineering can be rescued, before one of its risks blows up in all humanities’ faces.