10Out of Engineering
Numerous authors, from Neil Postman to Manuel DeLanda, have noted the diffusion of the Engineering World View into social and cultural realms. Carolyn Marvin has documented the nineteenth century valorisation of the discipline of Engineering and the person of the engineer: For some generations ...natural depravity has been left to ministers, lawyers, editors, the mothers of families, to anyone, in fact, but the engineer; and this is where society makes a mistake. The best corrector of human depravity is the engineer...No other man in the world has such stern and unceasing discipline, and so it comes about that no other man is so safe a moral guide as the engineer, with his passion for the truth and his faculty for thinking straight.
If engineering models necessarily replicate the values of the cultural milieu of the engineer, then the technologies generated become themselves models, by virtue of their ability to generate wealth, power etc, as previously noted. J.D. Bolter calls these 'paradigmatic technologies'. Browsing a university course catalog, I reflected on the similarity between it and an automotive parts catalog. This line of reasoning led me to consider the process of a liberal arts education in these terms: Raw material (the student) is received and tested. If adequate, this material is subjected to a series of numbered processes in a certain order.
At the end of each process, the raw material is tested to see if the process was successful. If so, it moves to the next process. If not, it is either re-processed, or scrapped. Certain processes are only effective if other processes have previously occurred. These processes are modular, they can be arranged in different combinations to produce different products, a pickup or a coupe, a psychologist or a dancer. The efficiency of the factory can be measured in terms of degrees produced per dollar input. The paradigmatic technology here is the assembly line. The modern serial processing computer can be thought of as an assembly line for digital data.The computer has become a structuring metaphor, the 'paradigmatic technology' in a wide of human activities. Its application in these areas induces an accidental elision of ways in which human activity is different from that of the computer.
Put in economic terms, the issue is this: if the measures and definitions for human faculties are modeled on the computer, and the computer is an embodiment of a value system predicated on industrial methods of control and production for profit and efficiency, then the person has been successfully reduced to an entity only assessable within these criteria, ie: its worth is determined by its productivity, its worth is purely economic. We seem to accept the disciplinary regimes of engineering voluntarily. I have begun to observe that my relationship to time itself has taken on the qualities of the Engineering World View. I divide my day into units of time for tasks, the day is a succession of such blocks. I measure myself in terms of tasks achieved per unit time. I subject myself to a rigorous discipline of efficiency and optimisation.