It was at least four decades ago that IEEE Fellow and telecommunications consultant Gerd Wallenstein challenged his fellow engineers in an article entitled “Engineers are supersnobs.” Our intellectual pride and prejudice, coupled with our development of continually more powerful technical “tools” results in our supreme arrogance, he noted. Thus too often we shirk the responsibility of concerning ourselves with all user aspects of a development, including not just the prescribed uses, but the possibly negative or even dangerous antisocial uses.
Our excessive pride in the rationality of technology and of our profession may lead us to profess that technological advances can fix any faults or obviate any dangers that misuse of existing technology may have caused.
But in an apparent alternative to his opening thesis, Wallenstein conceded that perhaps we intentionally look the other way to avoid unpleasant conflicts and arguments we cannot win. His most pointed question was “Are not most of us slaves to job opportunities and paychecks, and prisoners in a system in which responsibilities are shouldered by others?” If this were not the case, he suggested, engineering faults like those exposed by Ralph Nader would not have occurred.
If he were to re-write his article today, no doubt he would cite the complicity of engineers in the explosive Toyota airbag recall, the General Motors ignition switch defect, and the Volkswagen deceptive pollution test results.
In each of these cases, the unanswered question is to what extent were the project engineers involved. Did they themselves make and defend the unfortunate design decisions, or, once discovered, were they forced to live with them by their superiors, and did so without objection?
So which is it? Do we really think we are always right in our decisions or are we afraid to confront our superiors and suggest that a project be ended or at least turned in a new direction?
Most engineers, I believe, would prefer being in control of their projects so they can design them to be useful and safe, unencumbered by features that might be exploited for some dangerous or antisocial intent. Yet that is seldom the case. Most engineers are not self-employed, and many of today’s corporations are managed by executives who are not engineers.
Perhaps if all technological enterprises were founded and subsequently managed by the engineers who devised the products they produce (e.g., Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard), employed engineers might have a greater input to new product developments and their ultimate uses. But alas, not all engineer-founders survive the demands of running a competitive corporation or dealing with a profit-driven board of directors. They are vulnerable to replacement by a business-school graduate, or by the high-profile CEO of a profitable manufacturer of detergents or breakfast foods.
Then too, more of today’s high-tech companies market their products directly to consumers as opposed to supplying components to makers of consumer products. Thus the drive for profits and threats from competitors gain greater attention from management. And engineers are expected to be more sensitive to changing consumer interests.
As I reported in an earlier column, at the beginning of the engineering profession a theme soon developed that engineers themselves ought to be in charge of the work they do, and not beholden to some non-engineering-schooled boss. Engineering professionalism was thus thought of as not having to take orders from one’s employer, the medical profession being a model.
This ambitious hope proved unrealistic, but was the source of discussion in several AIEE papers in the 1940s. Wallenstein himself optimistically proposed that employed engineers who accept responsibility and openly discuss the social consequences of their work may more readily gain the attention of their leaders.
When historian Edwin Layton examined the dilemma in the mid-1980s, he described it as one in which we engineers must accept our role as part of the bureaucracy that we helped create, while maintaining our moral and ethical obligations to society at large.
The Beat Goes On
Nothing has since changed, except, perhaps, that the balancing act so aptly described by Layton has become more difficult.
But are engineers supersnobs? I don’t think so. Yet we are noted for concentrating on the technical aspects of the project at hand, and so may too often work with our blinders in place.
- Wallenstein, G.D., “Engineers are Supersnobs,” IEEE Spectrum, April 1974.
- Wallenstein, G.D., “The Humanization of Technical Man,” Cybernetics Systems Program, San Jose State College, 1972.
- Mumford, L., The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
- Layton, E.T., The Revolt of the Engineers, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
- Gear, H.B., “Engineering as an Implement of Management,” Electrical Engineering, August 1942.
- Christiansen, D., “Who’s in Charge Here?,” IEEE-USA The Best of Backscatter, 2008.
- Wild, R.H., Management by Compulsion, Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.