Not Always a Force for Good
Engineering prowess can exact a human toll. Our students need to know that.
By Debbie Chachra
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Thus did J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita, register the enormity of the Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. It was a singular moment, when scientists and engineers unleashed something with globe-spanning repercussions for humanity. Oppenheimer grimly noted later that “physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” In some ways, this marked the beginning of an erosion of the standing of scientists and engineers as an unalloyed force for good; with isotopes from nuclear testing appearing in species worldwide, it’s a striking example of how localized technologies can have a planetwide effect. Since then, our society has become increasingly aware that Earth is a finite volume to dissolve waste into, whether it’s carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or plastic in the oceans.
As the evidence of the human costs of engineering decisions has mounted, we’ve also become more aware of how these costs (and risks) are borne unequally, often by the people who benefit the least. The vaunted Victorian triumphs of infrastructural engineering, including London’s pioneering sewer system, were financed from public coffers filled with the spoils of empire, leaving the former colonies economically denuded. This past summer, one of these countries, Bangladesh, suffered through historic flooding that affected a third of the country. While it’s difficult to attribute specific events to anthropogenic climate change, it’s certainly a harbinger of the effect of rising sea levels on people who haven’t benefited at all from the fossil-fuel consumption—in part because of its low GDP, Bangladesh has one of the lowest rates of energy consumption per capita.
The past few decades have brought us global-scale communication systems in the form of the Internet, with new, unintended consequences at far remove from the creators and beneficiaries. As I write this, researchers have just announced new facial-recognition software that can identify individual faces even when they are covered by a scarf or a mask. A doctoral student who was one of the researchers behind the study has said that he was just thinking about criminals when he developed the software; he didn’t consider how this technology could be used by authoritarian states to identify protesters. Stories like this—a new technology that is likely to have disproportionately negative consequences for non-majority or underprivileged groups—seem to surface monthly.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1992 novel, Red Mars, one of the characters describes a group of scientists: “[y]oung men and women, educated very carefully to be apolitical, to be technicians who thought they disliked politics, making them putty in the hands of their rulers, just like always.” Here in 2017, with the unintended but not unforeseeable consequences of technology all around us, we’ve lost the luxury of considering engineering education to be politically neutral. To be politically “neutral” means only that you are aligned with the status quo. We need to ask our students to at least begin to consider the larger social and environmental consequences of the technologies they are devising, whether it’s a smartphone app or a hydroelectric power plant. It’s not that they will be able to change everything about the world that they’re in, but if they aren’t thinking about these consequences—or worse, if they think that it’s not their responsibility to think about these larger contexts—it means the people who are perhaps most equipped to consider the impacts of novel technologies are recusing themselves from doing so. To help our students and graduates consider the context of their work means that we, as educators, need to recognize that nearly everything we teach has a social dimension, and we need to start addressing and presenting it as integral to the engineering content, not just siloed off in the odd “Engineering and Society” class. Our students will be building the world of the future; it’s our responsibility to help them think about the world they will be building.
Debbie Chachra is a professor of engineering at Olin College.