The Role of the Engineer in the Information Age

By Arun Mehta


When looking at technology, we barely see machinery, let alone the people
who made it. We seem to take technology and its development for a given,
neglecting the process of its creation. We live off the fruits of the tree,
without examining its roots.

Technology is “the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims
of human life or, as it is sometimes phrased, to the change and manipulation
of the human environment.” As such, it has played a crucial role in human
survival, allowing a physically weak species to marshal natural laws and
resources in its defense. Since the harnessing of plant growth in
agriculture, the taming of fire and the invention of writing, the fruits of
technology have surrounded and transformed us. The cumulative effect of
technological development has brought us to a point where technology is
intertwined with every aspect of our lives. Yet, we aren’t entirely
comfortable with it. We only seem to notice technology when it breaks down.

There is passivity in modern society towards technology. While new products
are continually brought to our attention through advertising, the degree of
control most of us exercise is only in buying this product or that, and, at
most, in telling our friends. This is perhaps comparable with the degree of
control a couch potato exercises, through his remote, over the content that
networks beam at him.

However, there is a segment of society that actually makes technology, which
trolls the journals of science for new ideas, and looks at the reaction of
consumers to old products, in designing new ones. These people also have the
responsibility of keeping the old technology running and are the ones you
call when products don't work as they should. These are, of course, the
engineers, who belong to a “profession in which a knowledge of the
mathematical and natural sciences, gained by study, experience, and
practice, is applied with judgment to develop ways to utilize, economically,
the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind.”[ ] Going by
this definition, the term engineer must equally apply to practitioners of
“old” technologies, the farmers, carpenters, architects and plumbers, as it
does to geneticists and computer programmers.

For a while, each technology must surely have been new and exciting, and
during this time, technologists must have been looked at with interest at
cocktail parties, as Internet engineers were during the Dot-Com boom, and
geneticists are today. But the fate of the plumber is theirs in the long
term, recalled only when things go wrong.

However, societies that grew affluent based on technology as most of Europe
did, ignore technology at their peril. If much of the best student talent
does not head towards engineering, if European universities are not leaders
in technological innovation, their engineers no longer the world’s best at
invention and the management of production, it must come as no surprise if
jobs migrate to countries where societies treat the engineer with greater

A spectacular example of the importance with which other societies treated
engineers in recent times is available from the Soviet Union. Almost the
entire generation of Soviet leaders that followed Stalin were engineers,
including Kruschev, Kosygin, Brezhnev and Yeltsin. The probable reason for
this was that while Stalin had little hesitation in wiping out everyone
else, he must have appreciated that there was no way he could have beaten
the Nazis, nor competed with the West, without engineers. When he died,
these were the only people left, in any sort of leadership positions.

A Martian looking at Earth might imagine that engineers are the stars of a
civilization that is totally dependent on technology. Yet, nothing would be
further from the truth. Like the craftsmen who created medieval
architectural and other masterpieces, most engineers remain anonymous, even
the brilliantly successful ones.

How many people could identify the inventors of the digital computer (John
Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert), a device whose importance in modern life is
second to none? Alfred Nobel was himself an engineer par excellence. His
invention, dynamite, is still widely in use in mining and construction.(1)
That even he did not see fit to institute a Nobel Prize for engineering, is
typical of the modesty of the profession. Perhaps the best example of
societal inattention to engineers, though, is the case of Claude Shannon,
whom few outside the profession have even heard of.

This genius discovered that Boolean algebra, an area of mathematics thought
to have no practical use, was perfectly suited to the design of digital
circuits. H. H. Goldstine, in his book The Computer from Pascal to Von
Neumann, called this work ``a landmark in that it helped to change digital
circuit design from an art to a science.'' In 1981 Professor Irving Reed,
speaking at the International Symposium on Information Theory in Brighton,
England, said, ``It was thirty-four years ago, in 1948, that Professor
Claude E. Shannon first published his uniquely original paper, `A
Mathematical Theory of Communication,' in the Bell System Technical Journal.
Few other works of this century have had greater impact on science and
engineering. By this landmark paper and his several subsequent papers on
information theory he has altered most profoundly all aspects of
communication theory and practice.'' This paper has justifiably been called
“the Magna Carta of the information age.”

Shannon’s work on information theory has also had significant impact on
fields outside of communications, including linguistics, psychology,
economics, biology, even the arts. Robert W. Lucky, executive director of
research at AT&T Bell Laboratories, called his work the greatest “in the
annals of technological thought”, while IBM Fellow Rolf W. Landauer equated
his “pioneering insight” with Einstein's. Claude Shannon died as recently as
February 24, 2001, but the Internet, which is inconceivable in the absence
of his insights, barely noticed.( )

If people pay no regard to the people who make technology, nor make any
effort to understand them, they will find it hard to appreciate the logic of
the direction it takes – for the inventor and the invention resemble each
other. If the products of technology often seem lackluster and
unimaginative, maybe this is a reflection of a similar lacuna in most
engineers. We can also take the analysis one level upstream. To understand
why engineers turn out the way they do, one must look closer at how they, in
turn, are made, at life in an engineering college.


The manner in which engineering is taught is incredibly authoritarian and
dull. The reason for this is not hard to find. As pointed out by Peter Senge
and others, our modern education system was born during the industrial
revolution, which faced a severe shortage of trained personnel. At the time,
industrialists made a fortune by taking manufacturing out of the community
and locating it in a new kind of space called a factory. Faced with a
shortage of people skilled in manning these factories, the owners applied
their tried and tested formula once again: they took education out of the
community, and made it the responsibility of a new kind of factory called a
school. Indeed, our schools are organized along the same principles as
assembly lines, where the students are as parts moving in lockstep from one
class to the next, while the teachers are like machines that impart
education, within a highly authoritarian system. If a student cannot
successfully pass the requisite tests, he is thrown out, not unlike a part
that has failed quality control.

According to Senge, “While the assembly-line school system dramatically
increased educational output, it also created many of the most intractable
problems with which students, teachers, and parents struggle to this day. It
operationally defined smart kids and dumb kids. Those who did not learn at
the speed of the assembly line either fell off or were forced to struggle
continually to keep pace; they were labelled "slow" or, in today's more
fashionable jargon, "learning disabled." It established uniformity of
product and process as norms, thereby naively assuming that all children
learn in the same way. It made educators into controllers and inspectors,
thereby transforming the traditional mentor-mentee relationship and
establishing teacher-centered rather than learner-centered learning.

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