Monday, June 1, 2015

Ethical engineering

Joseph Stalin, in an interview with HG Wells, offered this radical analysis on the social role of engineers: ‘The engineer, the organiser of production, does not work as he would like to, but as he is ordered, in such a way as to serve the interests of his employers. There are exceptions of course; there are people in this stratum who have awakened from the intoxication of capitalism. The technical intelligentsia can, under certain conditions, perform miracles and greatly benefit mankind. But it can also cause great harm....Of course, things would be different if it were possible, at one stroke, spiritually to tear the technical intelligentsia away from the capitalist world. But that is Utopia. Are there many of the technical in­telligentsia who would dare break away from the bourgeois world and set to work reconstructing society? Do you think there are many people of this kind, say, in England or in France? No; there are few who would be willing to break away from their employers and begin reconstructing the world.’
Joseph Stalin in conversation with H.G Wells in Moscow 1934 First published as a special New Statesman Supplement 27 October 1934.  Recycled by NS 18/414
Is this the type of radical commitment that engineers must aim for? Stalin’s viewpoint was of course that of a revolutionary leader, in very different times, and in reality engineers (and many others) had a very hard time under Stalin’s gruesome rule. Certainly his actual political practices and record are not something many would now defend. However there is an element of truth in this specific analysis, and the consequent prescription: engineers need to be more proactive. A new book on the Ethical Engineering, to which I contributed, explores what that might mean by looking at a range of fields- from energy to medicine, and included a look back at how engineers fared in Communist Poland (actually, none too well). The most obvious area of ethical concern is of course engineers involvement with defence related technology, with drones being a recent issue, and there a chapter on that and another on the risk of the militarisation of space, but as I argue in my chapter on energy, there are positive involvement options too, although even with renewable energy care has to be taken to do it right.  We don't want to replace grim and dangerous work on fossil and nuclear energy with poor jobs in bad conditions, for example in biofuel plantations in Asia.  Or to develop environmentally dubious large-scale technologies like tidal barrages.

There is also range of implementation issues with ethical aspects. New technologies cannot simply be ‘parachuted’ into host communities in a development context.  The classic case of failure to understand local needs is the case of solar cooking (using parabolic dishes for focusing), an idea at one time offered, for example in India, as a seemingly obvious alternative to increasingly scarce wood fuel or the use of dung, the burning of which has environmental and health issues. What was not appreciated was that most cooking was done after sun-down, when people typically came home from work in the fields.  Simple implementation errors like this can be compounded by more subtle failures to understand local requirements and expectations, as some the examples (on medical ICT technologies) in this book illustrated. One of the conclusions that emerges is that there is a need for wide community participation in the implementation process, and indeed in the whole process of technology choice, design and deployment. Ideally the aim should also be to help host communities develop their own capacity to develop the necessary new technologies, so as to strengthen the local economy and local employment. The need for local involvement of course transcends the development context. Wherever they are working, engineers cannot operate in a social vacuum: they must engage widely with the community to try to ensure that the ideas that emerge are socially acceptable and reflect the needs of those they are meant to serve.
While the range of ethical issues raised by new (and old) technology is very wide, and this book only touches on some of them, the overall ethical aim seems clear. We are part of nature it, and, although our technology allows us to change our relationship with it, we need to coexist, choosing and using technologies that do not abuse the environment, people or other species. In this engineers have a special role. This book offers some insights into how that might be played out.

What are the practical implications? There have been attempts to produce charters for engineering ethics to guide professional activities, with modern environmentally-motivated versions sometime listing a series of absolutes in almost biblical terms – e.g.  thou shalt not use fossil fuels.  They can certainly provide overall frameworks, but may not provide an operationally realistic guide to day-to-day practice. Within the various professions, as environmental issues have moved up the agenda, technology selection and design criteria have been developed seeking to provide practical guidance, and environmental impact assessment techniques are now widely required to be used for many proposed projects.  They can be quite narrowly focused on physical impacts, but there are also wider approaches, more suited to project with broad social and environmental implications.

All of this puts a great responsibility on engineers.  Is it really fair to ask them to try to resolve all the world’s many problems?  Some of these problems are well beyond technical resolution, but engineers and technologists do help transform the material world and they have a responsibility to do this ethically. Of course the process of supporting and developing what are seen as sensible options and resisting others, may shade into assessment and promotion based on political views, given the difficulty of establishing moral ‘absolutes’ in some contexts. But in general there do seem to be opportunities, and indeed an urgent need, for engineers to express their views, and to act on them, adopting a precautionary approach. That is the least we should expect.
‘Ethical Engineering’ ed Marion Hersh, Springer, now out: