Technologists who Give a Damn?

I’ve been using Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in classes for a while now.  One key message of the book is that professionals (well everybody) needs to care about their work.  Perhaps more in Zen terms, to be mindful while they work.  The author asserts that one of the reasons technology is so alienating now-a-days is that the lack of care is evident in the workmanship, robustness, etc. I’ve also been working on an update of the SSIT Strategic Plan, and one element of that discussion has been what catchphrase should we use?… Like on business cards.  IEEE’s is “Advancing technology for humanity” which is a good one.  Currently we are using “Where Technology and Society Talk” … but it is tempting to use: “Technologists that Give a Damn” … a bit demeaning to imply that some (many?) don’t, but unfortunately this is at least occasionally true. There are at least two levels of caring.  The obvious one for SSIT is paying attention to the social impact of inventions and products (the “should we make it” as opposed to the “how we make it“).  There is a lower level that is also critical, in software we might ask “is this code elegant?”  Oddly, there seems to be a relationship between underlying elegance and quality.  Clean, simple design often works better than a ‘hack’, and it takes both a level of mastery, and a level of mindfulness to accomplish.  Some number of cyber security holes are a result of code where folks didn’t care enough to do it right. No doubt many “blue screen of death” displays and other failures and frustrations emerge from this same source.  Often management is under pressure, or lack of awareness, and is satisfied with shipping the product rather than making sure it is done well.  I’m not aware of any equivalent in most development facilities of the Japanese “line stop buttons” that make quality a ubiquitous responsibility.  The reality is we need technologists who invent and produce products that are right socially, done right technically — technologists who embrace “care” at all levels. A retired career counselor from the engineering school at one of our ivy league schools in my Zen class observed that we were more focused on ‘career skills’ than ‘quality’ in our education, and may be suppressing student’s sense of care.  We then observed that this apparent lack of care, evidenced in so many consumer products, might be a factor in why girls are choosing to not enter STEM education and careers. I suppose the question  that remains is “do we care?”

Early Technology (Fire) and Society

An Oct. Wall St. Journal asks “Was Human Culture First Kindled by Fire?”  It really goes to the roots of technology and technologists.  Technologists and Engineers solve problems (Harry Potter’s profession not-with-standing) — things like “how can we stay warm at night?” and “You know this stuff scares away cave bears“.  And of course can open the door for new problems: “ouch” and “Hey Og, what happened to forest, it all burned down now.

But consider how harnessing  fire created a focal point for family, community, and no doubt more.  So here’s a question … which Technological Innovation do you suggest has had the greatest impact on society?