Article - Issue 22, March 2005

Engineering makes you human

Professor Will Stewart FREng

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Will Stewart FREng

Will Stewart FREng

There is a popular conception that engineering – and to some extent science and technology in general – is a less ‘human’ and therefore a less sympathetic activity than the arts and humanities. This goes with a perception of it being less ‘natural’ and therefore of being in some way more hazardous.

I contend that exactly the opposite is the case. Whilst any creature with a nervous system feels and expresses emotions to some degree, humans uniquely undertake the inspired and clearly-structured logical thought that enables us to conceive of, design and construct new environments for ourselves. Of course, such thought processes can be difficult even for us, which may in part be why children find them hard to adopt, but that is precisely because they are human rather than merely animal.

This underlines why it is so important to get this right. Unless we can convince upcoming generations that it is important for them to understand as well as use technology – to engineer their environment as well as react to it – we will be better-equipped than, but not otherwise much different from, our intelligent hunter-gatherer ancestors. And their lifestyles were not so different from those of other animals.

This brings us to a curious point: those who are reluctant to accept engineering as the distinguishing human trait are nevertheless determined to see humans as ‘different’ from other animals. This view was probably triggered by Darwin but has been through many guises and has infected even the most brilliant minds since. The effort seems currently bogged down trying to define something called ‘consciousness’, whose most important characteristic seems to be that we have it but the cat doesn’t! The cat’s inability to do engineering may be a more practical distinction.

So, if you cannot do engineering are you really less human? Well, you may be contributing less to the human enterprise. Of course, you can produce great art or literature concentrating just on the emotions, and this is intrinsically a very worthwhile activity. However, if you do not understand the engineering and scientific context of the modern world, can you, as past writers have done, adequately address the great issues of today? It is sometimes distressing to hear well-meaning people, even public figures, trying to debate, say, global warming, whilst lacking the basic understanding or even the habits of thought needed to see the issues clearly. For example, regardless of any extent to which engineering may have contributed to global warming, only more – rather than less – sophisticated engineering can lead to its mitigation.

Of course we do many things, from philosophy to storytelling, in a different way and to a different degree because we are human. For example, although other species have languages they do not study linguistics (though this might come within a broad definition of science or engineering). But these things exploit rather than change the world around us and ease rather than develop the human experience. Development requires engineering.

New engineering has always looked threatening to many people. It is hard to say whether today’s information-based engineering appears any more so because it leads to machines that in some sense ‘think’ as well as do physical work. But I am inclined to believe that any increased suspicion has more to do with reduced understanding; many new engineering projects appear unnatural merely through ignorance.

This begs the obvious question ‘what can we do about this?’ Clearly a focus on clearer understanding amongst the young is a priority, with emphasis on teaching in schools and better media coverage. Engineering and science are training in habits of logical thought for everyone, even though some still see them as purely vocational. Sometimes excessive safety concerns and perhaps shifts in technology may have made it harder for children to make things that work (surely a vital part of education). Improvements here would all help – but more exposure of engineers as human may be more rapidly effective than any of this. TV series about vets and forensic science no doubt grossly misrepresent these professions but they do wonders for recruitment, partly at least because they show the human side; we as engineers tend to prefer to be low profile and cautious in public. However sensible this seems it may in the long run be a mistake. There are great debates in engineering (energy? railways? pervasive communications?) and Faraday managed to sell electricity as fascinating to all. Can we do the same for the even more impressive feats of engineering today? The iPod or the mobile phone for example are iconic of our time – but when has anyone actually told the public how they work or what else their successors might do? Debate instead centres on safety concerns based upon extremely doubtful evidence (never properly evaluated by reporters) and, overwhelmingly, upon fear driven by ignorance. For example it is not enough to point out after the event that base stations create much less radiation at the head than handsets – if the public (and the media) had understood the basics of the technology this would have been obvious in the first place!

For admirers of C P Snow (or Leavis!), I would point out that this is not intended as a ‘two-cultures’ argument – if we are to divide humanity I would in any case rather group habits of thought into graphic-based (art, design, much engineering) and logic-based (maths, accountancy, some software algorithms, the law) – but the distinction between the two is often fuzzy. Both sets of thought could and should include engineering and scientific structured processes and of course both are necessary.

But is the public at fault or is it we who are at fault for avoiding them? Engineering is the most human of all human activities but we may be guilty of pretending that it is not!

Biography – Will Stewart FREng

Professor Will Stewart FREng is Chairman of Innos and Visiting Professor at Southampton University's Optoelectronic Research Centre. He works in optics, electromagnetics, communications and microelectronics, and has been Chief Scientist of Marconi as well as the expert advisor on the Foresight programme Exploiting the Electromagnetic Spectrum.

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