Fighting Back When Necessary

The workers in Huff-Hannon’s article took a very interesting approach of going against the norm to protect their own interests. Through identifying that the traditional, widely adopted approach to running a business was failing, they opted to develop a new approach. One that was both beneficial for the business, its customers, and its employees. The traditional approach is supplemented by the mindset of doing what they have to do to get their paycheck. In that respect, they served as pawns to their employer. However, things definitely changed once their employer failed to keep up their end of the arrangement. Once the employer was out of the picture, it was their job to step up, take control, and manage their own future. This is a contrast to what we saw with many of the companies that moved into Iraq. These employees could very likely see the effect of what they were doing and did nothing to stop. They were also motivated by getting their paycheck. And since they were still getting their checks, they didn’t deem it necessary to take action, even if they knew it was the right thing to do.

–Sunny

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Faith in Engineering (and the Bible of Progress)

As engineers, what we “know” is derived from a combination of scientific principles, historically developed standards, and experiences of our own and others. By most definitions, engineering is a field based on the application of mathematic and scientific principles to solve technical problems. In this way, engineering glorifies math and science as the best way to solve certain types of problems. Implicit in this definition is the belief in the objectivity of the scientific method, despite the unavoidable biases and many basic assumptions that must be made in order to carry out “science”.

Engineers have thus been empowered to be key players in altering the natural world, breaking it down into individual resources to be separated, developed, and/or used to create new human commodities. Even 55 years after Carson wrote Silent Spring, some people still cling to an idea of nature only retaining value insofar as it is useful to humans, with no intrinsic value in itself. Building dams and creating bioengineered monocultures are symptoms of this philosophy of human dominance over nature, of a drive to “improve” or “conquer” our environment through technology.

To some extent, though, I think the field of engineering is acknowledging our inability to find exact scientific answers to everything. We talk about developing an “engineering sense” and require years of experience under a practicing engineer before being able to gain the title of Professional Engineer. We recognize that something more than a knowledge of math and science must be developed to make a good engineer- a component of tacit knowledge that is separate from the technical knowledge that we usually prefer to acknowledge.

In a similar fashion, over the last 50 years, different views have emerged regarding the relationships between people and the environment. It is now widely recognized that humans have some responsibility for the protection of nature, at the very least in order to preserve resources for future generations. Ideas about humans living within the ecosystem instead of above it have also finally been catching on, stemming from Aldo Leopold’s attempt to spread such ideas in the first half of the 20th century (and perhaps an increasing appreciation for non-Western and Native American cultures that have long lived by such ideas). Such ethics embrace the chaos inherent in natural systems over the order often imposed by humans, and demand for more flexible technologies and adaptive systems, in order to return humanity to a more humble place in the world.

Our changing view of nature may also have profound impacts on human-to-human relationships. I think some light can be shed on this issue by Shesthra’s observation from his experience in Nepal that “Development was measured in terms of the distance between humans and nature.” The way we tend to continually abstract ourselves from the real environment not only serves a dangerous role in promoting consumption of natural resources, but also creates a “knowledgeable” elite that feeds ever complex technologies to the “dimwitted” majority, thereby creating nearly inescapable structures of power. If the public is empowered to have confidence in their own local knowledge, such power structures could break down, which gives those at the top motivation to encourage the public perception of “science” as an ultimate authority.

 

–Laura

Thoughts from Henry

Last week we talked about how modern engineering came about, how now we’re not system builders but instead servants of the system. While reading through this weeks readings it occurred to me that this was also basically taking the profession of engineering from the realm of local knowledge to that of a more technical knowledge. When engineers were system builders the knowledge used was technical but it wasn’t in the same way as it was when engineers became servants. There were less engineers and a lot of the time the engineers were apprentices of other engineers, so it was more like learning a trade than it is now. In modern day engineering you are taught all the technical knowledge of engineering but no local knowledge. That is what experience with a company is for. You have to learn how to apply this all this technical knowledge you have gained. Technical knowledge is great but without any local knowledge, local knowledge being about how to deal with irregularities, or for example knowing that a certain type of bearing won’t work in these conditions because it will slip out really easily. So what i basically want to say is that now engineers are being taught a lot of technical knowledge without being taught how to apply this through local knowledge, and this was a result of engineers being churned out of college so fast.

–Henry

Computer Science and the Responsibility of Truth-Making

Frederich Nietzsche is well-known for his phrase “God is dead”. But what is not immediately evident from that quote is its context. Nietzsche, a son of a Lutheran pastor, was certainly not a Christian, as shown by his later writings. But in the passage quoted before, in The Gay Science, Nietzsche was responding equally to Christian ideas as he was the idea of scientific positivism.

In his parable, Nietzsche addresses the concept of transcendental “truth” or “meaning”. The shift from Christian theology to scientific, rational ideals was, to Nietzsche, one that merited much examination. Nietzsche critiqued a reliance on the empirical sciences for the ultimate idea of “truth”. An empirical, positivist view of the world, to Nietzsche, was not enough to save it from “plunging, continually… as through an infinite nothing”. And the madman, when he realizes that others do not understand him, leaves. He claims that his “time has not yet come”.

So what does this have to do with the pedagogical practice of Computer Science?

At the risk of sounding like Nietzsche’s madman, I have always been somewhat wary of the emphasis that people tend to place on STEM. STEM has always been “good”. It’s role in society is rarely questioned for its usefulness, and in fact, the discoveries made in STEM are often held as the unequivocal “truth”.

As an undergraduate in college, I am currently going for a degree in both Computer Science and Comparative History of Ideas. Despite the number of jokes I hear about having “one useful major, and one ‘fun’ one” (especially from STEM majors), I maintain that computer science is only granted the privilege of being called “useful” because of the internalized attitudes of scientific positivism that pervades contemporary thinking. This thinking is very rarely questioned, and because of this, the pedagogy of STEM has become overemphasized in discussions of education.

I see this attitude reflecting in the very language used in many of my classrooms. “You are the future of the world,” my professors often say. “You can go and make money, and do good.”

Companies such as Google and Mozilla echo this idea. “Doing good is part of our code,” and “don’t be evil” are both slogans that play off of the moralistic notion that computer science equals human progress equals good. But is this really the case?

Recently, of course, these ideas have been challenged because of the recent events concerning the NSA and the PRISM program. Perhaps these issues are not forces of “good” being used for “evil”, but rather a part of what “advancing” human society means. Maybe computer science should not be represented as an advancement that is intrinsically tied to “good”, but instead a responsibility – just like so many other fields.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not want to underplay the potential that computer science has in shaping the future. It’s actually quite the opposite. As society grows more and more dependent on STEM and specifically computer scientists (albeit through a self-perpetuating system), I believe that computer scientists will have a critical role: they will inherit the responsibility of making ethical decisions that affect the rest of society.

In teaching STEM, it is valuable to keep in mind that nothing about it is an inherently “good” topic. “Good” does not necessarily mean what is best for our economy. It does not necessarily mean creating revolutionary new technology, or making steps in “human progress”. The notion of “good” is being shaped by us – in the laws we make, in the people we choose to idolize, and in the very language we use to teach others. And as computer scientists, or perhaps teachers of computer science, let us not underplay our own responsibility in defining the role of STEM for the future generations. Part of this might mean agreeing that “thinking well is not the province of any one discipline,” as DavidHemmendinger says in “A Plea for Modesty”. Part of this might mean acknowledging that computer science is a niche field (and perhaps not the most important part of one’s education), as my peer Jessica does here. Part of this might mean keeping students informed on current events such as the PRISM program and the NSA, or incorporating a wider range of ethics classes as core to the field of computer science.Which ever path we decide to take, it is valuable to realize that our words and actions can allow us to, at the very least, choose the direction in which we will “plunge, continually”.

 

–Brian

Round and Round the World Goes

This week was interesting because it connected the ideas that we have been talking about in the past weeks to new ideas regarding power and knowledge. To me, it is cool how all the different aspects we have learned in school come together to form society and life. In past weeks we have talked about capitalism which relates to economics, this week we read about power and knowledge which relates to sociology. We also talked about class which also relates back to sociology. The list goes on and on with the environment, and other issues that aren’t directly related to engineering, yet somehow impacts what we engineer. It always amazes me how the things I learn in one class can relate to a different class. So cool!

 

–Alyssa

On Noble Engineers

From Week 1:

I am reading Environmental Engineering; Fundamentals, Sustainability, Design

There is no strict definition of environmental engineering, but a quote on the first page illuminates the author’s thoughts; “engineers play a crucial role in improving living standards throughout the world. As a result, engineers can have a significant impact on progress towards sustainable development.”

From this week:

In Fischer’s story, engineering knowledge bases, which are rigidly codified and quantified by nature, were being forced upon local farming, fishing, and wildlife protection services with largely ineffective results.

In both stories, the engineers and scientists behind the scenes probably saw their work developing the technologies and knowledge bases as noble. They were working towards spreading their knowledge so that people all over could benefit from it. In this case I do not think the engineer/scientist is the issue. The issue is the lack of consideration of the local knowledge base, which is often quite scientific as well. As Fischer states multiple times, it would be beneficial in many cases to use a combination of “technical knowledge” and “local knowledge”. The same thing could be said for rural Nepal. Western Technology and medicine probably could have benefitted the people in Shrestha’s community immensely if it were applied in a way that was sensitive to local values and that took local knowledge into account.

Connection:

In week one, I was skeptical of my textbook’s description of engineers as do-gooders. In the next few weeks my eyes were opened to the roles engineers have played in racist and sexist social industries, how engineering is dictated by capitalism and how engineering can mess up the environment and replace workers with robots. After learning all of this, I was determined to be sensitive to all social and environmental impacts in my career as an engineer. Then this week I discovered how vastly social and environmental conditions change globally and how scientific reasoning isn’t even the best way to approach some problems. At this point, I’ve learned so much about how engineering can go wrong; I might never find work as an engineer that I can confidently stand behind!

–Joe

Engineered for modern society, developed with primitive ideas: the BlenderBottle

In my week 4 response, I argued that the social system that is necessitated for the BlenderBottle to stay relevant/used is the community of weight lifters, those who frequent the gym and want to build muscle mass by using protein powder and other supplements that are easily mixed with the BlenderBottle. When writing my reflection this week, I realized that aside from the main function that sets the BlenderBottle apart, easy mixing, the fact that it is able to contain water gives the object value to every type of community. Even those in third world companies would be able to make good use of the BlenderBottle because of its primitive water bottle properties.

 

–Erik