At the recent ACE Awards dinner, our industry honored leading innovators, companies and products. It was good to see an appreciative audience for this well-deserved recognition. But then I realized we were preaching to the converted. The broader world still dismisses engineers and scientists as quirky outsiders.
This became clear when I was trapped and had to watch an episode of the dreadful "Beauty and the Geek." The show's premise is that there is something wrong with the geeks, but with some help they can be made to be cool, if not actually hot. If I suggested that perhaps the beauties could benefit from a knowledge makeover, I'd be dismissed as, well, a geek.
It wasn't always this way. Until about the 1960s, engineers were not only honored, they were respected. They were guests on popular TV shows for their accomplishments, not as oddballs to be mocked. Earlier in the 20th century, engineers were accorded more respect and stature than any other professionals.
We've come a long way from that world.
The Associated Press has announced it will hire 20 more reporters solely to cover celebrities, and they don't mean scientists or engineers. And I'll bet if eight-year-old Carson Pagethe Editor's Choice ACE Award winner for his impressive work with FPGAsever appears on the Leno or Letterman show, he'll be there as an oddity, not a role model.
How did this transformation happen?
I think we are victims of our own success. In the past few decades, we've made such incredible progress in so many areas, at an ever-increasing rate, that we've made it all look so very easy. The public is no longer impressed by feats of engineering: They think all this amazing gadgetry just happens by itself, because we've made it seem that way.
What can we do? It wouldn't be practical, or advisable, to squelch scientific and technological progress. But perhaps professional societies, universities and high-tech companies could team to launch an image campaign. One message might be: "If it weren't for the nerd next door, you wouldn't have (fill in the blank)." Here's another: "Celebrity fades. Knowledge lasts."
As with so many engineering problems, there is no simple solution. Perhaps it is not even viewed as a problem. Our culture has moved to a new perception of what it values, and it's not us.
If that's the case, we have only ourselves to blame. But we owe it to ourselves, and certainly to the next generation of innovators like Carson Page, to do something about it.