An Engineer’s Apology – A Metamodern Take on Becoming a Dasein Ronin

This blog seems out of left field if you were to simply look at my credentials on paper. Why does an energy engineer write about ideasthesia or anarchism or other esoteric ideas? It’s somewhat simple – they actually do relate to engineering. In fact, engineering is the common thread.

It is a truism that we are what we repeatedly do, for better or worse. I never wanted to be an engineer, but here I am (so it goes). I am sure that some of you kind readers didn’t expect to grow up to become whatever you became, but the past cannot be rewritten. Someone once told me “In knowing one thing, know all things” so if our dreams seem to be out of reach, it is by achieving mastery in our fields that we may become liberated to do as we intended before the world got to us.

This is why there is such a philosophic bent to my writing. We must set out with the ends in mind to achieve mastery and thus become liberated from ourselves and choices forced upon us. Theoretically.

Onward and inward then.

So if we are what we repeatedly do, doing something different can mean becoming someone different. But often, we aren’t afforded the opportunity. We must make our own opportunity. But why does this happen? Why do our actions have such a profound effect on our identity?

This is historically a recent phenomenon – tying identity to profession. I think what is more static across history is that we are what we think and what we do effects how we think.

As an example, I was reading (from some programmers and engineers) about how thinking in terms of code and math for long stretches of time seems to render them unable to speak. Just thinking in number-crunching mode for so long made it difficult for these engineers to immediately talk to their children. To clarify, it’s not an emotional detachment or distraction from work – they simply had trouble shifting from the “if error != nil { let i = i++ } else { print(error) }” to colloquial, day-to-day speech.

I noticed this in myself after the first two years of engineering with the bulk of the mathematics courses. Something about my thought process changed in a strange way. Mathematics is a language and learning a new language changes the way you think and aspects of your personality. This is why I wrote about the language revolution.

If we are to change the way we think, we change our actions, we change who we are. This is why we must at least be mindful and cognizant of how we think, else we risk becoming something without any conscious control who we become.

So if that is how the engineer thinks, what does the engineer do? He (or she) creates technologies based off our understanding of the physical universe. This necessitates a diversion into metaphysics i.e. what is our understanding of the universe? I have at various points pointed to my understanding in the framework of energy/matter, value, and information.

Of course, this is not a complete accounting. Very real, but intangible effects aren’t discussed here, like fun and whimsy. The engineer can’t manipulate these entities in entirety. This is the realm for sales and marketing. Or more humanly and less cynically, this is an entirely different language with an entirely different purpose than what mathematics and science offer. I don’t make this point disparagingly, it simply is what it is. STEM doesn’t (directly) make much room for some of the aspects of life several of us would say constitute humanity. Other fields do.

Maybe you understand now the parameters in which engineers (or at least an engineer) create technologies in, but what do engineers create? I offered some interesting engineering challenges that I personally am interested in, like vertical farming, blockchain, and social media. There are other things that I am equally unqualified to talk about but excited for, like advances in nuclear technologies, superconducting materials, artificial intelligence, in vitro meat, robotics, electric cars, autonomous buildings.

And it goes on.

Technology is cool, but extended thought about technology is taxing. Again, this thought and this thought process changes the pre-engineer into the stereotype we think of often. This isn’t 100%, will-always-happen-or-your-money-back-guarantee true, but I think carries enough weight to be meaningful and subject to discussion.

If Heidegger was correct, technology is only created because it has some utility to us as a species. It is tools that we use to achieve some ends. The problem is that viewing the natural world (and people) through using so much technology means we start to view the world as technology, or at least resources for technology. Technology becomes a Zahir, in the Borges sense of the word.

The notion of viewing the world only through the lens of how useful it is to us humans is one I’ve had to force myself to shift away from, which I’ve documented through Appropriate Technology, Progress, and Mein Politik. I’ll be honest, the children’s novel Ishmael had a big hand in this push towards biocentrism rather than anthrocentrism.

It would seem then that technology is worth of study itself. This is why I wrote about anarchism. Anarchists (not all, but a sizable portion) view history in terms of the technologies developed and their effects on humanity. This is in direct contrast to the political left, who explicitly view history in terms of class (see: Marx) and the political right, who view history in terms of generational conflict (although this is more taboo to discuss on the right). I wrote Idolatry as a brief sketch as to how I synthesized this viewpoint, of viewing history through the lens of technology and its possible connection to animism.

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Most engineers are taught ethics as a requirement by ABET so the university can become certified. We are often rushed through the same trite examples of the Boston Molasses massacre and the Tacoma Narrows bridge under the guise of an easy A. We generally aren’t really taught the impact of the technology we develop. That’s why technologists will often write off the impacts of their developments.

Most strikingly was a recent episode of Radio Lab. This episode focused on the upcoming release of a software package called Voco, which would allow anyone to edit audio clips with very authentic sounding voiceover of whatever you wanted to be said. In the context of fake news and propaganda, this is a frightening technology indeed. What sadly unsurprising to me was the lead researcher was ill-prepared to discuss the ramification of her technology.

Why would she?

She was never taught how history hinges on the tools we as humans develop.

She was never taught how technology forces us, with its own specialized language and curated talking points, to view the world through one lens and one lens only.

In fairness, the editing team of RadioLab may have painted her in an unflattering light. But dozens of other examples of how blissfully unaware, and sometimes gleefully, technocrats alter the course of history with no regard to the effects after. This is why sustainability became forefront to my personal philosophy as to how to approach engineering.

But as any engineer knows, entropy is a bitch. Entropy renders all attempts to create stable and resilient systems mute. I wasn’t explicit about this, but I mentioned it in passing in Information Theoretic Thermodynamics. All the biomimetic engineering, appropriate technology, respect for natural law and natural rights in world cannot undo the simply reality of the universe tending towards disorder.

And it goes on.

So why do anything?  Short answer: money. Yes, I’m a whore. I’ll admit it. But on closer inspection, it’s not just my own personal greed. I made the choice to go into engineering because I knew it would make me financially secure, but I chase paper only for survival. We live in an engineered society, which means that our environment is no longer naturally selecting us as it previously did. Or at least as potently. We are now artificially selecting our environment. In this hypernormalized society, we need some abstract, artificial structure to hold it together.

Money.

Money, paper, is for some reason now a proxy for survival. This is not intuitive to most people. Why would it be? Most of our development was doing tangible things like finding food and not getting struck by lightning. This is why I wrote so many, many, many, many, many, many things on capitalism. It is the glue that holds everything together.

And it’s weird to me that the actual agents of change, the progenitors of technology and the technicians and workers who apply it, are often the least aware of the impact of the economic system even though it dictates the quality of the technology and vice versa. Poorly engineered products or projects are often cited as the result of a budget cut. Right?

Throughout all of this, keep in mind that I’m just one guy, with one mind, half-functioning at best. I can be lied to. I believe in my own bullshit. I call bullshit on things that are true. I’m always aware that I might simply be missing information that answers all my questions. I may have totally incorrect premises.

Engineers generally rely on the scientific method, but I know that system is flawed. And I’m concerned about how much of the soft stuff, the social science and psychology and news articles, are to be trusted.

As an engineer, I try to not point out flaws without offering solutions. For the news media, I offered subvertisements and Rashomon, twice in fact. I discussed social capitalism as the synthesis to the Hegelian dichotomy of the capitalism and socialism debate, among other answers to issues with capitalism.  To our epistemological problem with science, I thought about a Godelian solution through microcosms. I half-heartedly offered other potential thoughts in the Three Gates of the Enemy.

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The interesting thing is that the more research you do into one of these things, the more aware of the connections you become. I am unfortunate in that any attempt of mine to illuminate these connections only brings more questions. This is a feature, not a bug.

Our hypernormal, over-engineered world is built on layers of history and interwoven systems. It is impossible for one mind to grasp even a meaningful portion of it. This is why there are more connections the closer you look. There is a word for this thought – post-modern.

You see, a significant portion of the early 20th century was spent with these grand narratives guiding human action. Political ideology, religious texts, scientific truths, progress…all the supposed guiding light and purpose of human work. Midway through the 20th century though, a movement rejecting these narratives emerged, with increasing scrutiny on the minutia works, thoughts, and movements and a subjective interpretation these pieces of the whole. Post-modern.

In context of engineering, we are often told that true innovation is dead. Our current generation of engineers have not made the contributions the previous generation has given. One may say “No! Look at the iPhone and Tesla and all these cool apps. Look at AR and cloud computing!”

And it goes on.

But those things are innovations, not inventions. They aren’t tantamount to commercializing the car, or air handlers, or the massive infrastructure projects of the mid-20th century. No NASA.  No Manhattan project. Truly new industries in our cohort of engineers is rarer than ever. And despite all press to the contrary, entrepreneurship is down and decreasing.

This connects to modernism and postmodernism because that previous generation was brought up under a modernist thought and focused their energies to meeting whatever goal it was, be it defeating Communism in Vietnam or creating a bomb so massive it effectively ended traditional warfare.

The current generation of engineers has no guiding goal, except maybe, maybe, sustainability and combating climate change. But as I said, the deeper you look at the issue, the more you realize it is due to the inevitable push of entropy. Some of those issues have effective but unethical solutions.

If I were to tell you that over-population and ecological overshoot is problem, what would be the obvious solution? Hint: China implemented a policy to combat this very problem.

What if I told you that greater reliance on monocultures is increasing the volatility of our ecosystem, rendering it more susceptible to collapse, but that this system is the very same that saved nearly a billion lives? Again, the obvious solution is one that is unsettlingly unethical.

Metamodernism accepts the reality of postmodernism, but imposes a modernist view anyways. Kind of like existentialism. One way I think about it, the optimistic way, is that it is like constellations in the stars. We look a scattering of points of light that are randomly distributed, but we connect lines that aren’t there and tell ourselves stories, not because they are real or impactful, but so we may guide ourselves and remember the placement of the stars.

The pessimistic view is that metamodernism is more like a prostitute, who with no nothing else going for her, does her makeup and takes pride in it. Even though it is the most shoddily applied makeup you’ve ever seen, and her joy at her handiwork repulses you and gives you waves of secondhand embarrassment and you can hear stifled laughter in the background, she is so proud of handiwork that she goes out of her way to show the other equally dismal and dejected unfortunates, only to amplify your secondhand embarrassment because that’s all she has.

Metamodernism, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m not sure any of the proposed solutions I’ve discussed fit in any narrative other than, again, sustainability. If we were to rally an effort to combat climate change like that we mustered for World War 2, I’m sure the problem would be solved. But then what?

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I originally wanted to be an artist.

In hindsight, being an engineer is not so bad. I make drawings. They get shot down for some small detail, so I go back and redo the drawing. Submit it again for approval. It gets shot down again. Repeat until acceptance.

I imagine artists undergo a similar process. Engineers tend to plug in their headphones and grind away. Most artists I’ve met are similarly solitary, at least when try to produce content. The process is similar. The flow is similar. We both similarly wait for inspiration for a design or a piece. I think both professions have some understanding of how concrete an idea can feel.

But where they diverge is their awareness of a lot of these ideas that are present in engineering, but not discussed or obvious. Artists tend to be viewed as the unrulier bunch, more free-spirited and willing to entertain the idea of anarchism. They seem to be more aware of the social impact of their work. They might not know more technical concepts like entropy or how history is explained by technology, but they also are not taught to view the world solely in terms of its utility to humanity only.

I think it goes back to language and thought. Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny. The thought that an engineer sows is a far cry from the thought that an artist sows. Though the methods are the same, the intention breeds different characters.

Artists seem freer because they aren’t bound by that number crunching mindset. At least to me, they seem free. Maybe they don’t feel the same way. But they are more readily able express themselves whereas engineers seem to be more surefooted and hesitant.

That’s why I probably and entranced by Godel’s Theorems – he used math to break math (kinda). Could I use engineering to break engineering? Is it possible to unthank the things I’ve thought, break free of a mindset, wipe the slate clean, tabula rasa? Can we unask the koan of engineering? Is the cognitive dissonance of attempting to create order in a universe inevitably tending towards disorder able to be placated?

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