Bill, your posts and columns just improve with age. Keep up the great work!
Now, as counterintuitive as it may sound, it may just be that the publicly unglorified engineer is better off. Seems to me--to expand on RPCY Consulting's take--that once money began to be associated with engineers--lost of money--the tide may have begun to turn against engineers. We always love an underdog in this country, but one the underdog takes the podium, it's time for pot shots.
In addition, to reinforce what a lot of the other commenters said, it's HARD. It's hard to become an engineer and it's hard, challenging work. Americans will work hard but young Americans weaned at the TV/Internet nipple are increasingly being told that fame and fortune can come to you without any prerequisite intelligence or athletic ability (see Kardashian, Kim).
And I think lastly, yes, engineers deserve respect, but too much respect (see doctors, all) isn't any better.
Maybe toiling in obscurity for good pay and the better satisfaction of intellectual stimulation and technical achievement is the zen here.
I heard a story once that may or may not be true: Stanford wanted to reward Fred Terman for all his great work and churning out great engineers by building a new engineering building for him. He demurred, arguing that students working out of a Quonset hut at real live engineering benches might not be as innovative or focused amid newly luxurious surroundings.
I've heard the gnashing of teeth over our societal status since the 90's. It's gotten old. It does no good to preach to ourselves. Let's stop. We're engineers - by our nature we don't keep repeating things that don't work. Instead, find something - anything - to improve the situation.
I do projects with my girlfriend's daughter. Pop-bottle rockets, snap-together electronics, stuff like that. Not everything works as planned. That's good, it shows her that results don't just appear without effort. Sometimes you have to re-think and try again when things go wrong. I doubt she'll be an engineer, but at least she won't grow up to believe tech goodies are magically delivered by Morlocks living underground.
I can't fight a war against society - I'm too old and too tired and there's too many of them. But I can fight this one, tiny battle. And it's going to deliver more results than crying "We don't get no respect!" That's just useless.
So true. Another example is at the local level. Our local newspaper never misses a sports score from our local kids teams, which is great. However, two (TWO!!!) local students placed highly at last year's Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF 2009), ahead of about 1,500 students from over 50 countries, and there was nary a mention! Forget about the results from the county science fair.
I completely agree with Mr. Friedman that we need to celebrate these students and their accomplishments. To paraphrase the Intel advertisement, our rock stars should be your rock stars.
Oops, gotta go. Somebody wrote something new about Michael Jackson! Maybe he's still dead.
Bill, you're dead on. One nit: Bill Gates does garner respect, but you neglected to say why -- it's because he's rich, not because he's smart. I think the reason society lauds fame for its own sake instead of technology or science is that T&S is HARD. It takes real mental energy, real cognition. Read People Magazine and see if you ever once break a mental sweat. Also, the more technical things work well, the more they're taken for granted. Thus has it ever been. People who assign meaning to a psychic prediction success rate of 0.1% (well below random chance) would get very angry if their car or computer or big screen TV were to fail just once a year. We technologists aren't bringing this on ourselves, we're exposing a self-limiting trait in humanity. We're in the historical phase just before the fiddling starts and the matches get lit.
I think it also hinges on the engineers and scientists creating the ability to have an "instant on" and "fully connected" society. Those Born after 1980 don't remember not having computers in the home. They haven't seen the Apple rise from the IIe to the iMac, iPhone, and iPad. Computers have always "just been there." They haven't toiled through BASIC language programming and DOS. It amazes me to see the technological progress we as engineers have seen over the past 30 years. TRS-80's anyone? :-)
As Mr. Schweber states, we have made the world 'magic.' We have made the technologies that make the world a better place today commonplace. We made the tools that allow the MBA's, Wall Street Traders, and the other current "sexy" job sectors what they are. The magic overshadows the work that went into the project. The magic overshadows the feeling of accomplishment when one creates a successful EEPROM load and/or electronic project in school. We have allowed the secluded, geeky, socially inept, live in the parent's basement stereotype to take hold.
We need to get the engineers and scientists back in the forefront and get the do-nothing Hollywood "stars" out of the limelight. Really. All they do is repeat others' words and direction anyway.
Excellent opinion piece!
Bill, I agree with your assessment but also believe there's another factor: as a group we've sometimes over-promised and under-delivered. Aren't we supposed to be living in a Jetson-like world by now, piloting our flying cars to and from work? Where's the paperless office that was promised in the 80s? When is my vacation on Mars?
To be sure the engineering and scientific communities have made - and continue to make - great contributions to society. But we've contributed to the lack of respect as well.
Thanks for the excellent article!