Who will understand technology?

Joe Rogan is a comedian, actor, TV host, and a number of other things—most of which are based on his skills as an entertainer. He admits though, in one of his funniest standup bits, that he is not a smart person when it comes to technology. And like most comics, his insights have more than a few grains of truth. His routine gets roars of laughter because the audience—surely including some relatively intelligent people—can relate to the overwhelming complexity of modern technology. Engineers as a group, who are often considered to be technologically savvy, still can range from true gurus to absolute technophobes. However, even the smartest among us suffers from a finite capacity for learning and understanding.

Rogan illustrates this with one question: "If you were alone in the woods with a hatchet, how long before you could send me an e-mail?" Absurd—or is it? What portion of our lives is absolutely dependent on materials, technology, and effort that we take for granted? In fact, just who is it that has "granted" us anything? On whose shoulders are we standing? Even the most advanced computer scientist requires some basic level of existing technology upon which to build. When we can look back thousands of years to ancient Greeks or Romans and identify the roots of our modern-day engineering endeavors—be they related to hydraulics, structures, or even ethics—the sheer number of innovative minds that came before us is surely incalculable.

Joe’s question, though, could be applied to any technology. If we were to construct a "family tree" of a modern water distribution system, for example, it would cover the floor. The relatively straightforward concept of collecting water, ensuring cleanliness, and transporting it to a consumer was at one time as revolutionary as the Internet. It depends on knowledge of geology, biology, chemistry, hydraulics, materials, metallurgy, mechanics, electricity, and the processes of actually constructing the system. Every modern piece of machinery or pipeline must be manufactured, tested, transported, and assembled; and there are political, environmental, and legal aspects as well. In which of these areas should a "typical" civil engineer be an expert?

It is a humbling realization that as long as technology continues to advance, there will be fundamental constraints on our ability to absorb all of the consequences of it. Is there then an essential set of skills or knowledge that can be considered universal to any successful engineer? I don’t believe so. Just as civilization depends on an infinite combination of abilities from each individual, so does our engineering microcosm rely on a variety of practitioners who have specialized abilities and general knowledge of how those specialties interact. The best that any formal education can do is to establish the core competencies in a particular field and a foundation of critical thinking to evaluate others’ work.

As we look ahead and anticipate the future of the profession and engineering education, we must be careful not to create new engineers who are merely "technologists." To be sure, engineers in the foreseeable future will need to be able to work with exceedingly complex computers, software, and surveying tools. But an engineer is necessarily more than someone who can push the right buttons. Not only must we work from project to project, maintaining profitable businesses and pursuing our livelihoods; we must collectively "grant" to non-engineers like Joe Rogan the ability to cultivate their own skills without being required to reinvent the wheel whenever new technology comes along. The world may be dependent on technology it cannot comprehend (I know I am), but we are at least partially responsible for ensuring that someone will be around in the future who can.

"We like to pretend we’re not idiots by using a bunch of stuff that smart people came up with. I’m worried that one day, all the smart people will die and leave us with all this stuff we don’t understand." —Joe Rogan

Jason Burke works for Allied Engineering in Bozeman, Mont.

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Posted in Uncategorized | January 29th, 2014 by

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