My wife and I were recently talking about the play, Man of La Mancha, when I brought up the subject of the nobility of electronics engineering, and the dichotomy between those viewing engineering as strictly mercenary, and those seeing it as a noble calling.
In the play, Man of La Mancha, the hero Don Quixote envisions a beautiful lady, Dulcinea, to whom he swears eternal love and loyalty. However, the woman he imagines to be Dulcinea is actually Aldonza, a serving wench and part-time prostitute. Nevertheless, he refuses to see baseness in her, and steadfastly proclaims her to be his noble lady love, which at first flabbergasts Aldonza, but which eventually transforms her into what Don Quixote envisions her to be.
My wife and I were talking about the play recently, when I brought up the subject of the nobility of electronics engineering, and the dichotomy between those viewing engineering as strictly mercenary, and those seeing it as a noble calling, imbued with the virtue of care for others in its practice. There seemed to be such confusion over the obligations that should exist in the practice of electronics engineering, that I said I wanted to write an article about it, to highlight exactly what I thought was Noble about the profession.
“You are going to be bashed,” she warned. “People today don't even agree what 'Noble' means.”
She was right, people don't agree, and I'll be bashed. But in the spirit of Don Quixote, and hopefully not a spirit that is sanctimonious (but rather one that is merely questioning), I'll tackle it anyway, and ask, what is “Noble”?
I'm in good company asking that question. Never mind that it has been examined by deep-thinking philosophers for ages. No less a forum of philosophy as Star Trek has tackled it, when the science fiction series, as you may recall, examined the question of “the needs of the many” versus “the needs of the one.” And the question should be tackled here, because it underlies the basis of how we EEs should work, and whether it should be for each other or against.
In some circles, Noble is just the opposite of what it used to be. Ayn Rand's philosophy of damning those less able or less fortunate is, in those circles, the new path to holiness. “What's in it for me?” is the one standard of measurement in that philosophy. If I may be permitted to say so, rather than transcending the jungle, such a sentiment appears to embrace it.
However, in the classic sense of Noble, helping others is supposed to be a more prized achievement than just helping yourself. In the classic sense, doing Good is supposed to be better than simply doing Well (where Good is measured by how much better off a group is, as opposed to how Well an individual is doing in contrast to the group). You can analyze why that may be so by examining the outcomes in Nature of absolute competition versus cooperation. While individual competition can provide initiatives and breakthroughs in methods (Ayn Rand's point), cooperation allows specialization that creates efficiencies in carrying tasks out, which in turn can multiply effort by more than the number of people involved. In other words, the work of two people working together can outstrip the work of two people working as individuals.
That's why individual cells long ago banded together to create multi-celled organisms. Working together, they can create their own controlled environment, rather than depend on circumstances to provide for them, and go on to much better things than your average primordial soup can provide. Witness the more or less optimal, steady state of the interior of the human body in terms of temperature and salinity, even when conditions outside the body are inhospitable. Those cells in there love it! And they made it that way by cooperating.
I recognize that cooperative processes can become corrupt, can create inefficiency, engender bureaucracy, and stifle creativity (Ayn Rand's point again), but, in general, a group of people working together (rather than against each other) will outdo a group of people working separately.
So, the question is, for whom do you work? For yourself, or for others? Do you better only your own condition, or the condition of society?
It's possible to do both. An example is in how China is working to force solar panel prices down, to the level of parity with fossil fuels. This is the “invisible hand” effect, which adherents of Ayn Rand's philosophy will recognize, that transforms China's self-interest into a public good, as if guided by an invisible hand. In other words, emerging from this supposedly selfish goal of economic preeminence (the new “Nobility”), is paradoxically what turns out to be a global benefit, as if sought for altruistic reasons (classic Nobility).
But sometimes it is necessary to choose one over the other. It's a personal decision, but the outcome affects us all.
Tell me, would you seek Aldonza, or Dulcinea?
Rich Krajewski is an electronics engineer, editor, and amateur-radio operator [call sign WB2CRD].
Rich, I agree with the sentiment expressed earlier:
When I see the massive highway infrastructure in any major metropolitan city, or the power grid and repeater antennas, or medical devices as self-evident samples of noble intent of engineers, which benefit the masses by the effort and dedication of each engineer that designed and help build those human achievements.
However, there are many examples that stand in dark contrast, IMHO of questionable honorable cause: the design weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, bioagents: such as nerve agents, Agent Orange, DDT. Although I read strong arguments as deterrents.
In my opinion, these are any more noble than the oppression displayed by oligarchies around the globe that push engineering projects with ill intent.
My point is: there are plenty of self-evident cases of noble intent in the engineering profession, however there are plenty of gray areas and arguable human value.
We'll have to agree to disagree here Rich, but only slightly. In broad terms I'd agree that Engineering is a noble profession, and that Engineers are noble people. So your bashing is not going to come from me!!
All the best for 2011!
One example that comes to mind is the AK-47 rifle, hardly a noble thing to have designed; it's caused untold human misery and loss of life.
And yet Mikhail Kalashnikov did a superb job. As a piece of engineering the AK-47 is great. It does its job under all extremes of conditions. You can bury it or leave it in water for a year and within a few minutes of being retrieved it is ready for use with minimum maintenance. It's superbly reliable, easy to use and yet cheap to produce. And Kalashnikov probably performed a great service for his country by designing it. It's certainly true to Duane's requirements for elegance and quality in design. How about land mines? Or SAM-7 missiles?
The above is a very specific example but to my mind muddies the waters a bit.
Getting back to my generalisations above - in general Engineers are a lot more noble a bunch than some of the other professions I cited. Engineers usually work hard, are not the best paid or the most famous people, and yet the world is a hugely better place for their efforts. So yeah, OK, I'll go along with Noble....it does fit, generally, pretty well.
I think the biggest question really is the definition of "noble." My experience tells me that, in general, engineering types tend to lean toward operating from noble principles. The definition of that term has many different versions though.
One engineer may feel that working on green energy related products is noble. One may feel that working on national defense is noble. One may feel that working on anything but national defense is noble. Overriding that all, what I've seen is that a good engineer will try to be true to elegance and quality in design and that, from a technical perspective is one very important definition of "noble."
I'm not sure Noble is the word I would use, it's maybe a bit strong, but most engineers I know seem to have more of a sense of the consequences of their work than the average say shop assistant or admin person or accountant or (certainly) politician. (Disclaimer - These are all generalisations and like all generalisations they are only generally true. :-)
It's maybe more of a "do as you would be done by" attitude - engineers usually make things work the way they'd want things to work for themselves.
As I remarked in a previous comment, people like accountants and politicians will say "No, we can't do that" or "Well, if we do that it's going to cost you a lot." An engineer will think for a minute and say "Yes, we can do that." The "Can-do" attitude is what makes them great people to work with.
Hi Rich and compliments of the seaon...
"...but which eventually transforms her into what Don Quixote envisions her to be."
There's another quote on this subject that I am fond of:
"Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you will help them become what they are capable of becoming."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
A fact that a lot of managers never seem to grasp.
As to your question:
"So, the question is, for whom do you work? For yourself, or for others? Do you better only your own condition, or the condition of society?"
You get by far the greatest satisfaction in life by contributing to the welfare of others. Whether it is actively helping someone or just making sure that the little wheels you look after are turning properly, the knowledge that you've done the best you can is one of the greatest contributors to personal satisfaction that I know.
So yes, you do work for yourself, but only in that striving to meet your own personal standards contributes to a well functioning society.
My experience is that engineers in general set themselves pretty high standards, and it is a pity more of them don't end up in public life. If they did, methinks the world would be a better place.
Great portion Rich!
I think you've succeded in lifting to an interesting level of debate a predicament that otherwise would pass un-noticed. I didn't know that about the 'invisible hand' but I really identify the term when it regards to China.
about your last question, I think the answer is sometimes we'll pick Aldonza and some others we'll pick Dulcinea. I think that reflects the operation of most of todays big companies and this can go all the way down to the individual. The fact is that sometimes you have to work for the profit and sometimes you can harvest the fruits from helping others. And the order I think is to first help you and later help others because if you're not OK, you can't help others. right?