Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Bedrock Of Engineering

Call me conceited, but I'm going to write this entry based on the idea that I am a stereotypical engineer. I know right off the bat that it's not true -- I'm not nearly interested enough in math to fully embody the role, nor am I enough of a disciplined analytical thinker to really carry the title. My core personality is more along the lines of engineering by gut feeling. I'm technical enough to pull it off, but I don't have the chops in science to really own it in the same way as someone who still remembers everything they learned in calculus ten years after college. But I do think there's a common aspect between my personality and that of someone who's more methodical and, well, a classical engineer, and that is the desire to fix things.

I'm not just talking about a vague desire to make things better. Pretty much everyone has that, engineer or no. I'm talking about a deep-seated frustration with things that are slower than they could be. I'm talking about an exasperation that rises from deep within at the hint that you might be doing something repetitive -- and not just repetitive, but when doing anything that you haven't been personally been convinced is worth your time. If your reaction to a boring task is not, "Let's get this over with," but, "Let's automate this so I can do it in one percent of the time," that's the core of the engineering mindset.

It comes so naturally to me that it's something of a shock when I step back and look at all the elements that have to be in place to give me the luxury of even thinking about this. Combined millennia of engineering effort have gone into creating flexible, multipurpose tools that I can play with on a whim. The fact that the Internet will shuttle any piece of information from anywhere, to anywhere, without any setup cost by the person injecting the information into the network is a minor miracle. These things give me the kind of freedom to create that people one hundred years ago could only dream of, and yet I still find everything too slow, too repetitive, and badly in need of fixing.

I've recently become fascinated by the interaction between this desire to make everything more automatic and efficient, and the basic fact of supporting oneself in our society. While I'm lost in some system design, I'm also likely putting people out of work. Because my frustration at a repetitive task isn't just for myself. If that was the engineering mindset, nothing would ever get released or turned into a product. When I run into a repetitive task, my almost instant reaction is indignation that anybody would be asked to do this kind of thing by hand over and over again. Of course it would be better if we built a tool to do the same thing, only faster, with more accuracy, and with a couple features that you could never replicate with manual labor because it would just take too long.

Only my reaction isn't necessarily the reaction of the people who were doing that work beforehand. Any engineering solution obviously has to lock down unknowns to a certain set of inputs that it can handle successfully, so the process becomes more rigid in the process of becoming faster. And if that wasn't enough, the people doing that job now may not have any complaints. As unfathomable as it is to me, there are plenty of people out there who don't mind repetition. In fact we all have repetition at some level, and even to engineers a certain amount of it is comforting. When I go automate a process, I'm also telling people that their tolerance for repetition is wrong. Sometimes they'll agree and be grateful for the help, and sometimes they won't.

The times when they're not grateful may be some of the most difficult moments in our collective reality. Because you're telling people that the thing they've taken time to master has been replaced by a computer somewhere, and they have to go pick something else to be good at. I talked in an earlier post about the collision between those who like lagging toward the back of the automation curve and those who are trying to move it forward, but the full implication didn't quite hit me at the time. I said that somebody was trying to steal your job and mine, but it didn't sink in that I'm also trying to steal many other peoples' jobs.

I'm well insulated from that reality, I believe as most engineers are. When I go to work, I work in an environment that's supportive of these efforts, full of other people with the same frustrations and drive to improve things as I have. When I fix something that we use at work, it's appreciated because it lets everybody move on to more interesting things. And when we make something easier for people on the outside, we're usually interacting with people for whom we've replaced another supplier of something. Our products replace someone without us ever having to meet or interact with them in any way.

But they're out there; people who enjoyed keeping small business inventories by hand, or managing a warehouse, or doing research in a library. They loved the jobs that we took from them, or at least they were happy getting by on them. And their loss is at least partly on us, even if they would have been displaced by someone else months or years later. Our work that we love so much has made it that much harder for some honest people to survive.

None of this will stop me from going to work tomorrow, or the next day, or next year. I love fixing things, and improving things, and honestly I don't have total sympathy for people who would prefer to keep doing the things I automate by hand instead. Not yet, anyway, because I'm still idealistic enough to think that anyone can learn to like something more complex and be better off for it. But it's enough to cast some doubt.

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