Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, by Samuel C. Florman

It’s an ugly trend, I know, for book reviews to center too much around the reviewer—a sign, perhaps, that the reviewer is too much of a self-centered asshole to snap out of his natural narcissistic delusion to actually consider the work at hand—but in this case, I might have a small responsibility to start out with some caveats about myself. As a physics grad student, see, I come programmed with a swarm of biases about engineering. In physics classes, we are taught to scorn engineers, to think that they’re a necessary but secondary life form that exists to take our discoveries and put them out into the world. Our discoveries, though—let’s be clear about the boundaries of importance. These engineers are not to be thought of as pioneers or anything so grand; they’re worker bees doing the world’s work, while we, the great queens, give them the pictures of the world that they, neither intelligent enough nor imaginative enough to imagine otherwise, must blindly take as truth. This nasty little caricature may be necessary for the promulgation of physics (something to keep physicists from asking those practical questions like: why, if I’m so smart, do I get paid so little? and why doesn’t society think I’m cool, huh?), and engineers, so I’m told, are taught to harbor similar negative biases toward ‘pure’ scientists, those poor, impractical schmucks who couldn’t implement a real-world solution if life depended on it.

So it stands. So, too, it is probably not all that surprising that ‘The Existential Pleasures of Engineering’ didn’t overly rile my humors. The book itself is one of those tradesman’s classics that engineers (at least, the engineers at Dordt college, in my hometown) are assigned to read in their intro-to-engineering course as a pep talk that outlines what an engineer does, why this is good for society, and why, for those suited to it, engineering can be an enjoyable and profitable way to spend a life. These aren’t overly ambitious goals for a book, but they make it perfectly suited for that minor-classics niche that fills up introductory course syllabi. For non-engineers, the interesting parts of the book are likely to be those least involved in the craft of itself. For instance, what’s that ‘existential’ qualifier doing in the title of the book? And why this unusual emphasis on ‘pleasure’?

To explain those rhetorical questions, the first place to look is the preface, where Florman sets out the goals of his enterprise with an engineer’s directness:

At first glance, engineering and existentialism appear to have nothing to do with each other. The engineer uses the logic of science to achieve practical results. The existentialist is guided by the promptings of his heart, which, as Pascal said, has its reasons that reason cannot know. The existentialism most typically sees the engineer as an antagonist whose analytical methods and pragmatic approach to life are said to be desensitizing and soul deadening—in a word, antiexistential. To show that this adversary relationship is based on a misapprehension of the nature of the engineering experience is—as can be surmised from the title—a primary objective of the book.

Well, good enough. Next, though, we should probably check the copyright page, to position this puppy in history. 1976—the bicentennial year, true, but also right in the middle of the Future-Shock Decade, the Me Decade, and (most importantly) just after the Vietnam War’s end. History, at least to hear this book’s message, had conspired against the engineer. Back in the good old days of American Progress, an engineer was a friend to tomorrow, a reality enhancer, a vision facilitator. No more. In the wake of Vietnam, the engineer was just another blank-faced technocrat responsible for making bombs, tinkering toward Armageddon. The first of the book’s three sections is devoted to demonstrating this fall from grace; it is largely a pastiche of quotes from poems and novels from before and after the fall. For example. Before, we get Walt Whitman on the possibilities of new technologies:

Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.

Vs. Afterward, we’re given Cat Stevens as a representative of modern poetic protest (complete with unnecessary apostrophes, so as to compete with Whitman):

Well I think it’s fine building Jumbo planes, or taking a ride on a cosmic train, switch on summer from a slot machine, yes, get what you want to, if you want ‘cause you can get anything.
I know we’ve come a long way, we’re changing day to day, but tell me, where d’ th’ ch’ldr’n play?

As the man said, engineering needed an image rehab, and Part 2 of the book takes the fight to technology’s critics. In the chapter titled ‘Antitechnology’, he names his nemesi and gives each a key text: founding father of the antitechnologists, Jacques Ellul (“The Technological Society”); convert and intellectual heavyweight, Lewis Mumford (“The Myth of the Machine”—published in Pt. 1, “Technics and Human Development” and Pt. 2 “The Pentagon of Power”); scientific backer, the biologist Rene Dubos (“So Human an Animal”, which won the 1968 Pulitzer for nonfiction); popularizer via the New Yorker, Charles A. Reich (“The Greening of America”); and the man who put all this material into its final, summed-up form, Theodore Rozak (“Where the Wasteland Ends”). Here’s Florman talking smack: “They make an unlikely combination: a theological philosopher, a historian of technology, a biologist, and two academic apologists for the counterculture…With the exception of Dubos, who speaks in tones of sweet reason, they are all inclined to make extravagant statements, and, again with the exception of Dubos, they have been subjected to criticism and even ridicule. Yet certain of their basic ideas are receiving much serious attention. The thoughtful engineer has no choice but to give these ideas a hearing.” (pg. 48)

Given the already extant “criticism and ridicule” toward these poor luddites, the wringing that they’re put through in the next pages might seem a bit much. In terms of history, certainly, these guys posed little threat to engineering as a whole (especially since the ‘green’ movement in America today is so heavily intertwined with both engineering and capitalist economics). But the book is a pep talk, and any good pep talk includes a hefty offering of why the other team can be beat. This is kept mostly on the proper ideological level, and it’s possible that my boredom here is more that I’m already in the choir (no preaching necessary, thanks) than that the topics are so noncontroversial as I assume.

For instance. Under Florman’s characterization, the tone of all the antitechnological lit mentioned is uniform and unquestioning on some topics, one of these being the powerlessness of individuals to make their own decisions under the headlong march of techy progress. Florman prefigures Pinker on this subject and says that these critics have it exactly reversed. Technology is, as a capitalist enterprise, responding to the desires that people already have, not (as some suggest) insidiously creating needs in order to pump up profits. In fact, he goes farther with this critique and asserts that their referral to technology as an inevitable progression is just the type of dehumanization that they claim to detest, for behind each machine is an engineer, a human, and this person is simply doing his best to respond to societal needs with the tools he has. There’s even a subtext of snobbery in the antitechnologist’s furor. When Roszak complains of his irritation that during a trip to Yellowstone, “Never once were we out of earshot of chattering throngs and transistor radios or beyond the odor of automobile exhaust…Ah, wilderness,” Florman acidly responds, “How nice it would be for a select few of us if Delphi and Yellowstone could be set aside for our personal enjoyment, with the masses restricted to places to places such as Coney Island, more suited to their coarser sensibilities.” (pg. 80)

This is well said, and I find much to agree with in it. When today’s internet populists attack Al Gore’s plane flights and jumbo lodges, the same sort of anger gets (rightly) stoked. What I find harder to appreciate is why this little volume latches onto that most anti-intellectual of philosophies, existentialism, and claims it for the engineers. Aaaand…we’re back to the scientist/engineer divide. Florman praises the engineer as a ‘doer,’ as homo faber (‘man the maker’), and not as some scientist who would passively suck all meaning and pleasure from the world. No man plagued by doubt, he. Ah, screw it. Let him go to Sartre, and they can together condemn contemplation as an outcome of a bourgeoisie philosophy (really—Sartre does this, here). As for me, I can write little diatribes on my unread blog, dismissing the last third of the book as little more than a name-checking of every novel ever to involve an engineer. Hey, look, existentialists, I’m choosing! I’m sorry—I’m going to go indulge in some more of my sad passiveness, and try to actually understand what the hell’s going on…indeed, an unheroic thing, if ever. You can stuff it, engineers, O ye heroes.


  1. As a freshman, I read the words, and got little out of this book.

    I started re-reading it later, and found only a bitter old man spouting about heretical anti-technologists.

    His treatment of Mumford may have been a bit one-dimensional, as you indicated. I read some Mumford later, and he seemed like a reasonable guy.

    All the scientists I've met didn't seem very far-flung from engineers. I think someday, we could make peace.

  2. I reread my last sentence and found its grammar to be appalling. "None of the scientists I've met ever seemed very far-flung from engineers."

    Not that grammar is important on the Internet.

  3. Hey James. Speaking as the disposable 'spleen' of our jr. high math team, I know that the physicst's assumption of intellectual superiority is patently absurd, and, as you say, in terms of culture and working habits, scientists and engineers are probably well-nigh identical.

    Also: you give me more credit than is due w/r/t Mumford. I know nothing more about him than what was in this book--although your tepid reccomendation will force me into a Google search.

  4. For what it's worth Dave, the engineers I've worked with have been pretty off the wall incommunicable. And theoretical. As in the lacking of common sense it seemed.