some random thoughts on engineering ethics
Ever had the feeling that all technologies surrounding us are an offspring of the hidden powers of organized crime groups?
In the early 1940s, with the number of great discoveries in 19th century ignited by the second technological revolution a new era was born - the digital revolution. Back in 1947 in his short story "Little Lost Robot", Issac Asimov predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century's end that it would allow for humanity to establish a base on asteroid to perform research on space travel. With the landing of Rosetta last year, Asimov's story as usual held true again. The past 100 years have shown that the engineering disciplines, compared to all other fields of science, have probably by far the highest impact on society. The last is especially true with the emergence of the information age, which gives us one of the most influential instruments for psychological control humanity has ever had. With all that said, engineering science plays an important role in the development of our society, and to a large extent the future of mankind now lies in the hands of engineers.
Now teleporting back to early 1900 in the era of the second industrial revolution. With growing demands for easeing of mankind life by means of industrializaton, engineering established itself as a distinct profession. With the erection of a number of large civil engineering constructions, there had been a series of significant structural failures, including some spectacular bridge engineering disasters. Notably the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse and the Ludendorff Bridge disaster. These had a profound effect on engineers and forced the profession to establish some technical and construction practices which were driven beyond anything else but the price of human lives. As a measure, the development of ethical standards was established by an impressive number of world organizations, placing life safety to highest order. I am tempted to quote the engineer's seven canons here, published in the Code of ethics, established by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1914.
It is here to mention that engineering science constantly faces a number practical trade-offs, which also means that material savings and cost-efficiency are an immense feature of standard consumer engineering. When engineering ethics face the model of modern corporate powers, often, highly exothermic reactions can occur and as is often seen in nature the physically strongest monkeys always win banana fights. Unfortunately strongest does not always mean wisest, in fact, the contrary is usually the case. It means that engineering practice until now needed not only to take care of life safety, but also the corporate wallet. A wallet which vigorously dislikes any kind of drainages. In retrospect, the early established engineering ethics have so far worked quite well in most cases, despite that they are not always obeyed by large enterprises, take the recent case with Volkswagen for example.
Nevertheless, the consequences of such historical disasters may seem like a piece of cake, compared to what disasters of the future information age could be if appropriate measures are not taken. Not surprisingly history tells us that mankind may again fall into the same traps, some of which have been identified as early as 600 BC with the sudden collapse of the Egyptian civilization. The most drastic and rapid social change that mankind has ever experienced actually took place some three thousand years ago! A change from primitive barbarism to a posh civilization (in the context of such a far distant era) till a complete disaster and a vanish of identity. This is all just history, however, process recurrence is something normal in nature, at least to the extent of trusting empirical laws such as Zipf's. This historical de-brief should hint that nowadays engineering science is facing new challenges, unconditionally different from any other kind of past experiences.
During the 80s, coining the term cyber warfare in his novel "Neuromancer", William Gibson successfully pinpointed the soft threats of the information age - data and identity thefts and document forgery. But this was just the beginning, as the power of the Fourth World has reached influential levels in society beyond anything else seen in the past. With all of that said, due to this rate of influence, technology control should be tightened to a whole new order of magnitude - control which now widely lies in the hands of engineering ethics. Although technology provides us with rich possibilities it does not mean we should employ all in all, just because we can. Spying nowadays is a matter of a bit flip - it is needless to say that builders should not always be putting the donkey where the master says. Instead, it is the engineer's responsibility to act professionally and in line with the principles of sustainable development, no matter what the boss says. If each of us acts with merit of honor following certain principles - the collapse of the Fourth World would never happen. If misuse can be prevented in lowest layers of hierarchy, then it'd better be the scientists and engineers; hence some amendments in our code of ethics is needed, in fact we have been in need for it for a long time. Now, I realise that such argument is going to run into immediate objections: "who are you to say what code of ethics is". And on one level, this may obviously be true. However, during my short life experience I have seen a number of engineering ethics misconceptions which are inciting me to think that something is wrong. Another less visible principle delusion which also needs addressing is the modern model of self-induced slavery; what do I mean by that? Example - medical electronics is a field of engineering with a primary aim of making people's lives better, however, nowadays I see the majority of it as monstrous money making machine. How can brain chip implants, pacemakers or disposable endoscopic cameras be sold with nearly a thousand percent (if not even much more) profit margins? Products, the majority of which were developed using public money to start with; and are primarily used in the public sector. All of the above makes what's available today practically inaccessible, or if accessible not without some form of arm-twisting. This is the second, much less obvious threat of our digital revolution requiring more emphasis in the philosophy of science. We should not fall into this trap - getting down, surrendering and rendering what we have discovered into the rulership of some large enterprises represented by single identities.
Having control over mankind's way of thinking, sensing and experiencing information has been by far the most powerful tool scientists have ever held. Such tools combined with the caprice of some corporate maggots can form an explosive substance for humanity. Engineers - always endeavour personal commitment in what you do, amplify your moral principles to highest order and never fall into someone else's plans!
15 May 2016, 23:38
The bit about the early 1900s reminded me of an amusing quote by pioneer Igor Sikorsky: "At that time  the chief engineer was almost always the chief test pilot as well. That had the fortunate result of eliminating poor engineering early in aviation." We don't have this kind of filter anymore...
On a more serious note (and related to your last point), it is indeed ridiculous how "average Joes" who pay taxes, part of which go to funding science projects, remain in the dark about scientific progress. And while you could argue that new products are expensive and thus not widely accessible, what about information? Isn't it basically free? And yet it is hidden or twisted, as if our tools for understanding are not clumsy and biased enough to begin with.
...Anyway, great that you point this out. Hope it will be seen by more.
16 May 2016, 01:10
Had no clue about Mr. Sikorsky - awesome quote! Goes to my quotes brain-shelf immediately! True, it's rare seeing such types of devotion nowadays.
Information? What information? It is all there, online, hidden beyond the paywall and not only! I completely agree with you here and might add up that actually, it is very confusing. Public money is used to develop scientists in the first place (here I mean education), then the same end up working for independent research institutes, very often funded by taxpayer's money (also partially applicable to the corporate world), which hide scientific progress (as you suggested); publish data (for free?) and pay publishers to lock their findings; thereafter they try to sell the developed technology (making unreasonably high profits) thus breaking accessibility in the first place... It is a bit of a paradox which deserves another Sunday indeed.