Trackless and Treacherous
For decades, observers of the engineering profession have argued that engineers too often neglect the social, political and environmental implications of their work. Educators must foster greater sensitivity and responsibility in their engineering students, these critics argue.
In the 1970s MIT flirted with one possible response, the construction of a new college of Science, Technology and Society (STS), where undergraduates would study technology through the lens of the humanities. The idea evolved instead into the STS graduate program (where this writer received a doctorate in 1994).
But while STS scholars at MIT and other institutions have filled shelf after shelf with books about how engineers should demonstrate greater awareness of their power to mold society through technology, no single work has condensed these critiques into a form engineers or their students can use. Now Sharon Beder, a chartered engineer and a senior lecturer in science and technology studies at the University of Wollongong, Australia, has filled that gap. The New Engineer not only summarizes dozens of important essays in the STS field, but also shows how abstract moral, ethical, social and political issues raised in this literature figure concretely in the lives of engineers.
The book’s central case study will startle anyone planning to attend the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. The harbor city’s shimmering beauty masks a history of pollution and power struggles over sewers and sewage, Beder reports. Nineteenth-century city engineers promoted water carriage of sewage to ocean outfalls over competing methods such as dry conservancy and sedimentation tanks-but not because water carriage was technologically superior, Beder argues. Rather, it was “good enough” and minimized costs. In the 1980s, when public outrage erupted in Australia over beaches fouled by sewage and organochlorine-contaminated fish, government engineers continued to defend the ocean outfalls, arguing that the tainted seafood wasn’t as dangerous as the media had reported and that other sewerage options remained unaffordable.
But engineers can’t enter public debate and then hide behind the mantle of cost savings, Beder insists. Engineers must put the public interest ahead of their employers’ demands, she argues. But she also recognizes that if engineers are to be asked to jeopardize their own jobs, the engineering profession must rally more enthusiastically around whistleblowers and dissenters. The world of the “new engineer” is treacherous and trackless, but Beder’s book makes a serviceable navigation aid.
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