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As a social scientist that became and engineer by accident, I have noticed about my colleagues that:
They generally do not read articles in their field but assume that they already know the answers to questions, and do not seek outside information on problems they face.
They do not understand the scientific method and thus spend a lot of time tinkering instead of solving the problems by known methods. Design of experiments is rare.
They are generally prejudiced against higher degrees believing that a BSEE is enough education for every engineer.
They are generally against any process conditions being placed on their work, but also generally suffer from the problems that come from not having processes. They are only concerned with products not processes.
Over specialization is the rule, and people who have a broader view of the system developed are rare.
I was shocked when I realized that these attributes were shared by many engineers.
My perspective is that Scientists/Engineers/Technicians have Master/Slave relationships between these class levels. All of these levels are part of the Industrial and Technological complex and thus all suffer from equally from the problems that have been discovered in Philosophy of Science over the last half of the last century. In other words, Scientists attempt to discover the design of nature, and Engineers attempt to use that scientific knowledge to create artifacts that work and themselves have designs which are different from those of nature. Scientists wish to get their names inscribed into the history of science by having discovered something. On the other hand in our society Engineers are anonymous, corporations for the most part get the benefits of what the engineers patent. So you can see that there is a distinct duality between the scientists and engineers. Also Engineers are distinguished by a class relationship from the technicians who must do the manual work. In large companies with unions engineers are forbidden from doing any manual work as that would take work away from the technicians. Thus actually the engineer only ends up touching prototypes and his design and specification documents, and seldom get a chance to go beyond that domain into actual hands on engineering. This is very frustrating for engineers who above all else love to get their “hands dirty” working with the hardware in question, as they are breadboarding. As this frustration builds they either do their hands on work at home or create a startup eventually of some kind. Software engineers are allowed to touch their product because it is something written, like the documents and specifications that engineers deal with concerning the hardware.
Now the case that I want to make is that Scientists/Engineers/Technicians are a useless distinction from the Engineering point of view, but is extremely telling as a class distinction point of view. The difference between Science and Engineering is a reification of the distinction between Logos (Academia) and Physis (Industry) that is the key distinction at the core of our worldview. But actually scientists cannot do their experiments without engineers, and engineers cannot design working artifact without the knowledge of the design of nature. So this false dichotomy that makes the Engineer (Whose name is lost in the archives of the patent office) the slave of the Scientist (who has a name that will go down in history). Slave here just means that one is promoted and has prestige while the other is defaced and demoted by our society so that we always know who discovered what in science, but we rarely know who invented something if they worked for a corporation when they did it.
The second distinction also enforces a fundamental distinction in our worldview in as much as we can consider the philosophy of Heidegger who talks about the kinds of Being in terms of handedness. It is fascinating that engineers are not allowed to touch the actual hardware except in special circumstances due to the technicians economic right to do so. According to Heidegger there are at least two modalities, present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. Dasein is characterized by handedness, and that is because for Heidegger touching something by us is different from things touching each other. Heidegger calls this difference between types of touching the difference between modalities of Being. I call these two modalities Pure Being (Objective/Subjective, Parmenides and Process Being (Circumspective Concern, Heraclitus). Now this distinction plays a large role in engineering because it distinguishes between the presentation mode of Products, and the process by which the in technological infrastructure is created. So Engineers are constantly moving across this boundary when they try to implement their designs to satisfy requirements. But it is intriguing that society imposes a structure on touching the object of design. I make a distinction in my dissertation between the object of design and the designed object. The object of design is the product, the implemented result of design. But the designed object is the “object as designed” which is the result of the design process and is a semiotic representation of what is to be built. The class split between the technician and the engineer precisely separates these two states of the product under construction. But more importantly you can see that it is precisely the issue of the hands that separates the classes of the engineer and the technician. The engineer in large companies is not allowed to touch the product, or move it except under special circumstances, such as in trouble shooting in testing. The key issue in these class distinctions (class in terms of prestige but also in terms of pay in the case of engineers and technicians) is the touch in separating these classes of workers which is very interesting, and supports Heidegger’s contentions in Being and Time. He separates the two modes of Being into present-at-hand objectivity/subjectivity which Merleau-Ponty associates with pointing and the process of producing the product that involves touch of a different non-objective kind which Merleau-Ponty associates with grasping in the Phenomenology of Perception. The focus of the present-at-hand is unity of the product, and the focus of the ready-to-hand is the totality of the technological infrastructure that makes the product possible which is perceived though circumspective concern. We are obsessed by the presented product in its unity and we ignore the process by which it is produced. And this ignoring of the process by which it is produced has deep quality issues, because quality only can be realized in the product if it is developed through a quality process. This is the whole focus of the Software Engineering Institute’s Capability Maturity Model Integrated (CMMI) which is not applied to all engineering disciplines not just software anymore. Now this distinction between product system and process is key, because traditionally it was technicians that had to follow a proscribed process in handling the product in the implementation process, but now Engineers are being asked to do the same thing. Eventually even scientists may have to follow processes. I have a tutorial on processes on my website if you would like to learn more about my views of them.
But here I want to focus on how we should interpret the hierarchy of scientist/engineer/technician. The first distinction has to do with logos/physus which is one of the central dualisms within our culture from Greek times to the present. The second has to do with the difference between the engineer and technician in terms of touch which Heidegger uses at the basis for describing our being-in-the-world that is in terms of hands either present-at-hand or ready-to-hand. Two things touching each other as Heidegger said is completely different from our touching something. Our touching something constitutes the totality of the world which is realized as the technological infrastructure. So the engineer produces the technological infrastructure through creating designs, and then these designs are carried out in production by technicians and production engineers or manufacturing engineers. Not only the product is designed by the production infrastructure by which the product is produced is also designed. Thus I make the point that engineers are tied by these distinctions to Design, and so then if we are going to understand engineering then we need to understand systems design which I try to understand in my dissertation called Emergent Design.
In these class distinctions between scientist/engineer/technician we are in part defining our relation to our worldview and its internal structure. In one distinction we are connecting to the core logos/physis dichotomy, and in the other we are distinguishing the distance from the product of the design. So if we step back from the product one step we get the design of the artifact or the production line by the engineer stepping away from the touch of the design by the technician. Stepping away again we get the distinction between scientist and engineer one of which is discovering the design of nature in academia, and the other of which is designing the technological infrastructure based on the laws of nature. But these two need each other just as much as the engineer needs the technician within industry. To be implemented the product has to be touched. To designed properly the design needs to be based on a knowledge of nature learned by scientists in academia. You cannot have experiments like the Large Hadron Collider without engineers. Scientists have to have engineers, just as Engineers have to have the knowledge of scientists about nature.
Therefore, I make the case that really all these are false distinctions, and there is really only one person, who can be seen in his garage discovering, inventing, and tinkering. This Engineer who leaves his job to produce a start up combines all of these characteristics that are separated out in industry into one person. And because of this ultimate merger between these roles we have much of the creativity in technology in our economy to thank it for. But, the distinctions are useful because in them we can see part of the structure of our worldview being enforced and realized, because these various roles have economic and social impacts on those who fulfill them. In these social distinctions we can see the distinctions that are hidden when they are all collapsed in the lone engineer/scientist/technician at work in his garage. The fact that these social distinctions support some of the contentions of Heidegger in Being and Time is quite remarkable.
But in my opinion this brings home the reason why the philosophy of science concerns apply just as much to the engineer as the scientist, if not more so. Thus there is the idea of Popper that we cannot prove a theory, but can only disprove it. Design is just a theory of what will bring about certain emergent properties when implemented. Design of cultural and technological artifacts are the province of the Engineer, while the design of nature is the province of the scientist. Thus if we take Popper at his word then we can only prove a design by implementing it. And it is this fact that takes the product out of the present-at-hand of the finished product which is static and can be pointed at and thrusts it into the ready-to-hand of the process of implementation which uses the technological infrastructure to create other aspects of the technological infrastructure. This is called recently in software “eating ones own dog food”, a disgusting analogy but apropos. We reify one aspect of the technological infrastructure momentarily, freezing it, so that we can implement another aspect of the technological infrastructure. And this self-consuming quality is at the root of what Heidegger calls the ready-to-hand which where we grasp one part of the world’s infrastructure to produce another part of the world’s infrastructure. The inverse of this is what Sartre calls Nothingness which is the involution of something on itself in foundation less self-annihilation. This characteristic of Process Being comes from the fact thatdasein (being there) the focus of being-in-the-world is projecting the world in the a priori manner suggested by Kant that it finds itself thrown into. This is a lot like the quandary of Jesus as God being in the world created by God the father and communicated to via the Holy ghost which is also God. Dasein projects the world as an ecstasy which it then finds itself thrown into and falling due to its groundlessness and he is also lost in the Mitsein and thus is like a ghost who merely lives his life inauthentically immersed in the social nexus unthinkingly and without reflection. It is only death that causes a moment of authenticity.
What is not mentioned frequently enough is that Heidegger takes his terminology of dasein from Hegel, for whom it meant determinate being. The “geist” in Phenomenology of Spirit/Ghost/Mind has three meanings. I think that Heidegger read it as the phenomenology of the Ghost, rather than spirit or mind and asked himself who is this ghost that Hegel refers to and came up with the answer that it is the determinate being of the human being which can be described as being-in-the-world, only human beings have worlds, the farthest horizon of experience. Now if we take this exposition of Heidegger/Hegel seriously then we must accede to Heideggers other point which he took from his reading of Nietzsche, that the essence of Technology is nothing technological but is in fact nihilism. This point has a great deal of resonance with your question what is the most general thing we can say about Engineers which is true.
Heidegger says about human beings in general that the most profound thought is that we are not thinking yet in What is called Thinking.
We can say about human beings who are engineers that the most general profound thing we can say about engineers that they are not yet engineering.
How can it be that the essence of the engineer has nothing to do with engineering itself?
This is such a strange thought. But it also has to do with the question you also raise as to the nature of truth. Heidegger reading Aristotle as a phenomenologist noticed that truth in Greek was Aleithia which means uncovering, not verification. Thus truthing is a process of uncovering, not a static condition that never changes and once verified always holds. We call Engineering “Engineering” which is like becoming in relation to what is engineered, i.e. the product system with its emergent qualities. The reason that engineering does not have an essence related to engineering itself, is that engineering is always becoming. It is locked into an emergent process itself as we see from the discontinuities in the development of technology with the continuous introduction of disruptive technological innovations. Engineering is a process of allowing emergence to be uncovered through itself, and thus the essence of engineering is never settled, and this leads to nihilism because of the clinging of Engineers to a static view, which does not encounter this emergent quality of existence directly and authentically. We are not yet engineering because the technological infrastructure is turning over so rapidly that there is nothing we can hold onto as a final set of tools to solve any particular problem. Engineering never stabilizes long enough to become finally identical with itself. And this little gap, this slip sliding away of engineering from its own essence is what Heidegger called Being crossed out, and Derrida called Differance and Merleau-Ponty called Hyper Being and what originally Plato called the third kind of Being in the Timaeus which is the nature of Software as a cultural artifact. And that explains why software Engineering is different than the other kinds of engineering, i.e. that it can touch its artifact and it did not need a technician to isolate theory from practice as is done with hardware. Software Engineers do not need technicians because they can touch their product, and the reason they can touch it is that it is already very etherial, and somehow cannot be touched at all. Software is static code which we write which then is made dynamic in computers but its difficulty to understand because it is dynamic is legendary. This is exacerbated by the fact that we do not think algorithmically naturally and so we have to make special effort to design software, especially realtime software that enters into the realm of relativity theory when there is no global clock.
Hyper Being is the kind of Being which is the difference that makes a difference ala G. Bateson between Pure and Process Being. It is essentially non-representable and thus is continually slip-sliding away so we cannot really grasp it or point to it, but rather we have to bear its consequences, because we cannot really control it completely. All the rigor of Software Engineering is set up to handle this Hyper Being nature of software. But we cannot avoid it because it is what makes our machines adaptable, and reprogrammable, and it confers many of the advantages that are not possible without great effort with hardware. Even hardware with ASICs and FPGAs have though the advent of software design tools has become like software in many ways, and is now re-programmable. Hyper Being has penetrated deeply in our lives as more realtime embedded software code exists in hardware with CPUs all around us.
Thus it was an emergent development when Software Engineering with its special problems differentiated itself from Hardware Engineering, just as it was when Electrical Engineering differentiated itself from Mechanical Engineering. Each opens up a new emergent layer of Engineering, which brings with it the expansion of the emergent technological infrastructure into new realms. And this continual opening of new emergent levels, the latest of which is Ontological Engineering is what makes it so the essence of Engineering is not fixed by any present-at-hand Pure Being definition, but is instead constantly changing by the advent of new kinds of engineering that open up new horizons of technology that we exploit to retain global domination. Thus our power as a civilization is directly related to the innovativeness of engineers and the discoveries of scientists. If we cannot stay a step ahead of our adversaries then we are done for in this dog eat dog world (bit of irony there, it is a dog eat dog world where we have to eat our own dog food, i.e. use our own technology to create new technology). So Engineering, like becoming is always becoming something else, something new, discontinuously and unexpectedly, and disruptively. Black swans are continuously appearing in this new world dominated by technological invention and new discoveries that change the substance of our lives in important ways.
In my dissertation I make the point that Design is the third meta-level of the sign, and this is of the nature of the sign under the constellation of Hyper Being. This has many implications for the nature of Engineering and our future. But we cannot go into that here because every question leads to another deeper question and on Quora questions only exist in isolation and they exist as a nihilistic plenum, a plane of immanence of one particular plateau to quote Deleuze and Guattari. So let us take this back to the question at hand. What is the most general statement about Engineers that is true. It is like Heidegger says, the fact that Engineers are not yet Engineering. And this is because they are engaged in opening up new discontinuous technological worlds into which the infrastructure expands unexpectedly. They are engaged in producing emergent phenomena, and emergent phenomena is the dual of nihilism itself.
So while the essence of technology is nihilism the essence of the technologist is not technological either but is emergent, and that emergence occurs through the work of the Engineer in doing Design. He bases his engineering on physics laws (design of nature) discovered by scientists, and he hands his design to the technician. And thus the Engineer in large companies is hemmed in to a role of anonymity. His name must be attached to the patents but the pattens are owned by the corporation, unless he is an independent engineer. Only the independent engineer can merge the roles of scientist, engineer, and technologist together and own his own patents, but this is increasingly difficult when engineering new products takes so much money and so many specialties to invent and then to produce. But of course the Software Engineer is different. He can use the technological infrastructure to discover, invent, and implement himself if he owns a computer and it is connected to the internet.
Software Engineers are by definition more independent than earlier engineers in the sense that they can create their own products and serve them to a world population, and make a living from giving things away to a global meta-market. I say discover, because software engineers can create virtual realities, or mirror worlds as Gellertner called augmented reality. These worlds are not bound to the laws of physics but are composed of rules that we ourselves make up. We engineer by doing architectural and detailed designs of the products we create, and then we program them ourselves and take a hand in producing our vision in reams of incomprehensible code. So the most general thing we can say about Engineers is that they are not Engineering yet, and that is because they are constantly engaged in an emergent process that they do not control and in fact envelops them and the fact that it is out of control takes us to the dual of Hyper Being which Merleau-Ponty called Wild Being. Hyper Being is where being-in-the-world of Dasein expands and the tools transform in our hands and Wild Being is where being-in-the-world of Dasein contracts again and we lose control and are enveloped by an emergent change we did not see coming. But the difference between Engineering and itself is the slip-sliding of Hyper Being which cannot be pinned down which exists at the core of the Engineering process itself as non-routine work, i.e. work that cannot be captured in any process, work that goes on in the head of the engineer as he creates a new design with hypothetical emergent properties that can only be proven to realize the system being implemented and those properties being verified and validated and shown to be coherent with each other. We are not yet Engineering because the very nature of engineering is changing emergently and discontinuously and this is a core part of our worldview the latest rendition of which we see in realtime embedded software embedding itself into everything in our world.