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].