Friday, May 19, 2006

ISEPP Lecture (End of Season)

Dr. Louis Bucciarelli got his name in lights on the marquee of the Schnitzer last night. This low key MIT professor studies engineers almost through the eyes of an anthropologist, but I think he would argue, really more as a fellow engineer, self-aware on many levels.

His general message was positive: end users are getting more into the loop as influencing the design process. Today's "users" are less passive than yesterday's "consumers" -- and we may expect this positive trend to continue.

Engineers have the ability to implement many possible futures. There's no "technological determinism" at work, no predestination. So they need to be steered, even as they become more self- steering, as not all futures are equally possible nor equally desirable nor equally worthy of our allegiance and focus. Some futures, even if very possible, just aren't worth our time and energy.

So we need to prioritize and consult the oracles, figuratively speaking, to divine just what we really want to get out of our engineering. Our powers of invention have a way of giving us what we ask for over time, including nightmarish scenarios with technologies to match, if terror is what we're into. Bucky Fuller posited longing as equally motivational, and good at counter-balancing fear (Fuller credited Einstein for this "fear vs. longing" dichotomy, as well as for a non- anthropomorphic concept of God).

Speaking of Bucky, some young voice in the audience, belonging to no one I recognized, asked during the Q&A what would be the outcome of this whole Fuller thing (paraphrasing). Bucciarelli professed mostly ignorance of the Fuller corpus, though attempted an answer, hinting over-zealotry was more frequently a flaw in scientists than engineers.

You see, in Bucciarelli's object world (his terms), we may divide scientists from engineers in that the former claim to be discovering lasting truth (capital T sometimes) or generalized principles, whereas the latter just want to make something work in special case, a goal that may require frequent redesign and a rather short life cycle (or half life) for one's products. A different mindset.

If Bucciarelli himself is any indication, the engineer's mindset breeds a certain quiet reserve, which I was not alone in finding congenial. Indeed, another young voice during the Q&A spoke to the entrancing quality of his voice and asked if maybe he hadn't read books on tape or something in a previous job. "I was a rock star" he said, "next question?"

I went to the microphone to ask whether engineering firms might more formally identify key assistive disciplines and hire people into the firms under those job titles e.g. as bona fide anthropologists and psychologists. Bucciarelli said many firms already do that, at which point I inserted a special plug for philosophers.

Later, during the dinner at the Heathman, I asked if maybe the engineers and lawyers were on a collision course, given optimizing solutions to human problems would entail leveraging our newfound ability to faithfully copy digital assets ad infinitum, whereas many colonists want to fence off large regions of our shared intellect (an invisible landscape) much as they did on the physical plain, for their proprietary/branded cattle and/or horses (so-called "livestock" vs. the dead kind on Wall Street).

Having ideas stream freely, with no regard for fences or borders, makes a lot of private property minded lawyers feel antsy, to say the least. A freely copiable, high powered operating system like Linux seems like such a waste of a golden money-making opportunity to them.

Engineers, on the other hand, see all these new users being well served by these new circuits (e.g. the Internet), a marvel at how little the lawyers' concept of money enters into it (which isn't to ignore the fact that our Internet is hosted and protected by monied institutions, DARPA for example).

Bucciarelli's response mirrored my own thoughts on the matter: some lawyers will have a hard time keeping up with the changing times.

But it's not like we're planning to let go of the whole notion of lawful and ethical behavior (that's me thinking). On the contrary, engineers are taking an increasing interest in user values and ethics.

In the case of design science, for example, what counts as engineeringly sound may even synch with our ethical predilections i.e. keeping our designs free and open is what leads to fixes and improvements (smarter engineering), and is what keeps end users increasingly in the loop, increasingly educated about what really goes on behind the scenes, and therefore more able to really contribute and help steer (stronger ethics).

All in all, this has been a great ISEPP season. The small cross-section of Oregonians managing to attend these lectures must now be among some of the most educated and up to date on our planet. My enduring thanks to Terry Bristol and Mentor Graphics especially (both the company and the foundation) for making it happen. The Wanderers have also played a vital and catalyzing role.