As an engineer, I used to measure the value of everything based on hard numbers, while my ex-wife — an art historian and sociologist by training — did not. The dichotomy in our worldviews, and my arrogant belief in the superiority of my own, fractured our marriage and contributed to our divorce. My engineering education had indoctrinated me to value only the quantifiable, to be an unquestioningly obedient employee designing machines for the highest bidder. I was oblivious to the repercussions of my ideology.
Everything changed when I read Engineering and Sustainable Community Development by Juan Lucena. I discovered that my focus on quantitative details, air of superiority, and complicity in hyper-consumption and inequality were symptoms of the dominant engineering mindset. This mindset includes an assumption of only one right answer to every problem, a belief that engineers are expert in everything and a lack of critical thinking. Lucena illustrates how this mindset subjugates engineers to imperialism, militarism and consumerism by recounting myriad cases of engineers exploiting indigenous peoples and the environment in the name of material growth. For example, engineers building the Suez Canal used millions of slaves — thousands of whom died — to establish man’s dominion over nature.
Whenever I admit to being an engineer, there is a degree of shame in my voice. Yes, engineering has benefitted society, but only if “society” really means “the wealthy.” Consider sanitation — in the 20th century, improved sanitary technology in wealthy countries like the U.S. eradicated numerous diseases, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2.5 billion people worldwide still lack access to hygienic toilets.
Engineering’s destructive and unjust history is rarely, if ever, taught to engineers, and its pervasive mindset has become institutionalized. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I attended graduate school: arguably the world’s preeminent institution of engineering education. MIT’s mascot is a beaver (nature’s engineer) and it’s motto is “Mens et Manus” (Mind and Hand), denoting one who obtains theoretical scientific knowledge and applies it to practical ends.
Adherence to this motto engenders excellent facility in solving technical problems, but it eschews consideration for socio-cultural, political, environmental and ethical dimensions of the world. It’s no surprise engineers create technologies that disrupt communities and ecosystems. The violent and acontextual complexion of engineering also precipitates racial and gender homogeneity in the field, with women representing less than 13 percent of the workforce according to 2014 data from the National Science Foundation.
A few academic programs like Global TIES at UCSD, where I teach, are educating a new cadre of engineers concerned with the social and moral implications of their work, but such efforts are far from widespread. In this column, I will describe how my experiences opened my eyes to the harmful tendencies of engineering. I invite you to join me on a journey of critical self-reflection to challenge the dominant mindset of a field that purports to benefit society.