“Engineered for Dystopia” by David A. Banks

I often feel like I take issue with many of the same things about engineering that I do with design. Too often people push engineering as an objective endeavor (analogous to the design mantra “form follows function”), and so we are often fed a narrative that the systems built by engineers are somehow objective, just a solution to a problem. There’s also a general lack of critical discussion around engineering, which probably happens because for many of the same reasons as in design (e.g. the industry is often very closed-off, with the exception of open-source projects developed and maintained by these companies; the people who would be critiquing have obvious bias; most engineering does not lend itself to fruitful criticism; etc, etc).

Science, of course, is a field founded on critical inquiry. As we move further away from the practical and approach the theoretical, we come more and more into ideas which must be exhaustively proven before they are accepted. And while you can prove statements about engineering, these statements are typically proven through empirical evidence rather than, say, induction. That is, they must first and foremost demonstrate their utility, which makes sense in the context of engineering, but also seems to suggest that, like in design, it makes the practice of criticism less interesting.

One other thing I will say about engineering as far as its similarities to design goes is that we should not be surprised to often find that engineering is employed by people with power in devious ways. Engineers, like designers, are hired by wealthy people for their ability to create systems which help maintain the status quo. And especially in the age of software, the barrier to entry in this field is drastically low—all it takes is a laptop and an internet connection. This suggests that now, more than ever, is the time for us to be critical about the roles and responsibilities of engineers and how we should view their contributions.