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The Existential Pleasures of Engineering

by Samuel C. Florman

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334754,918 (3.62)1
Describes how engineers think and feel about their work, and argues that engineering is a response to creative impulses.



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As a socialist, I often get frustrated when writing something written by a liberal for their universal assumption that the capitalist mode is simply "human nature." Even moreso when the author is arguing against someone else who also fails to see that capitalism is the problem. This is the case for the first part of this book, in which Florman argues against the "antitechnologists", perhaps more accurately described as primitivist anarchists. The latter group posits that technology in itself is the root of the problems of humanity (at least this is how Florman presents them-- I haven't read them myself). Florman counters with the idea that limitless consumption is human nature, and the engineers have til now only satisfied the needs of the people. One particularly revealing passage goes:

"It is common knowledge that millions of underprivileged families want adequate food and housing. What is less commonly remarked is that after they have adequate food and housing they will want to be served at a fine restaurant and to have a weekend cottage by the sea. People want tickets to the Philharmonic and vacation trips abroad. They want fine china and silver dinner sets and handsome clothes. The illiterate want to learn how to read. Then they want education, and then more education, and then they want their sons and daughters to become doctors and lawyers. It is frightening to see so many millions of people wanting so much.(76)"

Taken out of context this quote sounds much more malicious than I assume Florman intended it to be, but it's telling that he never reconsidered his word choice here. He gives this passage in retort to the antitechnologists' idea that in our technological world, the 'needs' that the average person feels is being fulfilled by the system were created by the system in the first place. This, again, frustrates me as both sides miss the point that neither technology nor "people wanting things" is to blame, but capitalism. Both Florman and the antitechnologists focus mainly on the effects of technology in first world countries, where advancements have led to both a more convenient life and people feeling alienated from society. (Although, in one particularly objectionable aside Florman points to "underdeveloped countries" as an example of where "lack of technology" has lead to suffering-- falling into the same trap he mocks his opponents for of giving technology a will of his own.) The only allusion Florman gives to socialist ideas is dismissing "socialist materialist" authors as "mostly writers of atrocious poetry," and he dismisses the idea of alienation wholesale. He later "debunks" the idea of decentralizing infrastructure by pointing to the fact that "Chain stores are still in business, while mom-and-pop stores continue to fail. Local power companies, especially, are a vanishing breed.(160)"

Other blunders in the text include quoting, without further comment, Wehrner von Braun on the subject of improving humanity through engineering, and putting forth the idea that the lack of women in engineering was because women perceive the profession as less likely to lead to political advancement, while simultaneously offering evidence to the contrary.

However, I am still giving the book 3 stars because, despite the liberal worldview and the numerous pitfalls, it still inspired me as an aspiring engineer. Florman's main idea is that engineers are an extremely diverse group and no one philosophy could encompass them all, but they are all joined by the pleasure of hard work, problem solving, and manipulating the world around them. He shows the failings of the idea of engineers and scientists as infallible leaders of humanity, something the offspring of today's STEM culture could stand to be confronted with. I would recommend this to people like me interested in engineering, but only with a critical eye to where Florman is blinded by his liberal preconceptions of society. ( )
  robinmusubi | Jun 5, 2020 |
Existential Pleasure of Engineering
This book makes the argument that despite the frequent unintended side effects, engineering is beneficial to society and is even an intrinsic characteristic of human nature. The argument mainly seems to be a counter-argument to the “anti-technology” movement of the 1960s and 1970s when this book was written. I consider the title to be unfortunate as it is likely to be unappealing to engineers and non-engineers alike, however, the author obviously felt differently.

The book is divided into three untitled parts. Part One sets up the topic for the rest of the book. The author considers the 100 year period between 1850 and 1950 and labels it the “Golden Age” of engineering. Millions of people attended numerous World Expos to marvel at the latest technological marvels produced by engineers. Large structures like the Eiffel Tower were built which were larger yet lighter than anything previously constructed anywhere, and amazed and excited people. Transportation and communication advances dramatically altered how people perceived time and distance. This period ended just after the Second World War. The combined effects of the anxiety and regret about the Atomic Bomb, a growing awareness of the environmental pollution caused by technology, and a general dissatisfaction with social problems also attributed to technology led many people to question whether technology was truly a improving the human condition.

Part Two of the book focuses on several critics of Technology in the period after the “Golden Age” and through the mid 1970's when this book was published. The author refers to these critics as the “Anti-technologists” and focuses on five in particular: Jacques Ellul (The Technological Society, 1954), Lewis Mumford, (The Myth of the Machine, 1967), Rene Dubois (So Human an Animal, 1968), Charles Reich (The Greening of America, 1970), and Theodore Roszak (Where the Wasteland Ends, 1972). These authors are reviewed and quoted extensively. Florman acknowledges that some of their criticism is valid, but he disagrees with them: “... Their sentiment about nature, work, art, spirituality, and many of the good things in life, are generally splendid and difficult to quarrel with. … In sum, the antitechnologists are good men, and they mean well. But, frightened and dismayed by the unfolding of the human drama in our time, yearning for simple solutions where there can be none, and refusing to acknowledge that the true source of our problems is nothing other than the irrepressible human will, they have deluded themselves with the doctrine of antitechnology.”

After establishing the positive and negative consequences of engineering and technology, in Part Three, the author develops his idea that engineering is an “existential” component of human nature. Quoting from numerous sources, including reaching all the way back to Homer and to the Old Testament, he suggests that building and creating have always been an intrinsic to human nature, i.e. “existential”. His arguments are very, very subjective, but interesting.

The book is well written, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. Obviously, the book is somewhat dated. Significant technological changes have occurred since it was published. Problems of the “Information Age”, such as loss of privacy, did not even exist when the book was written. Still, the author's overall perspective on technology makes it interesting reading. The author is a successful practicing engineer with B.S. degree in Civil Engineering and an M.A. degree in English Literature, so he is well qualified to write on this topic. ( )
  dougb56586 | Jun 3, 2016 |
Complex collection of essays written over the course of several years defending the Engineer as a professional of the highest order. Well written from a stylistic standpoint. Florman takes the reader through the highwater mark of engineering (industrial revolution) to its demise (dawn of the nuclear age). Many of the essays are talks given to other engineering societys but they are accessable to people from other disciplines as well. This book was highly recommended to me by an engineer friend who got me my own copy. Not a brilliant work, but a good counterbalance to some of the 'science' writing being done today which tends toward the rhetorical more than the rational. Florman is dated but more persuasive than science-desk journalism or journal contributors. ( )
  sacredheart25 | Apr 5, 2013 |
A rare defense of masculinity, and a brilliantly compiled ethos. ( )
  mr.lewis | May 27, 2009 |
A nice, concise apologetics for engineering; chicken soup for the engineer's soul, and a succinct summary of its major foci and philosophies. ( )
  erk | Nov 30, 2008 |
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