Three things are true: (1) We are the only species that cannot live without technology. (2) All new technology brings about dangerous revenge effects. (3) Humankind cannot live without creating new technology.
Items 1 and 2 are pretty obvious. We can’t eat grain without planting and harvesting. We can’t survive the changing weather without making clothing and homes. No other species has to live by its technology. Yet automobiles and airplanes crash, pollute and redefine social structures. Sugarcane harvesting created the slave trade. Robots eliminate jobs.
Item 3 is less obvious. But new technologies continually create new needs. People die in automobiles, so we work to invent driver-proof cars. The cycle of invention can never cease, nor will we ever find equilibrium. I tell my fundamentalist friends that I know the Genesis story is true: We really did eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Then, like no other species, we must continually live by that fruit. Sure, the story is allegory, but its truth is unassailable.
So what does this mean for an engineer? We’re the spear tip of that state of affairs. We create, then try to manage the technologies we cannot live without, which we can never stop fixing and improving. The net effect is a general improvement of the human situation. But we always create mischief along the way.
And each of us exhibits a bit of Victor Frankenstein’s obsessiveness. Once we’re involved with a technology, we want to protect it while its inevitable revenge effects draw attacks. The great engineer and inventor, Thomas Midgley, gave us tetraethyl lead – a gasoline antiknock agent which also protected engine valves. But revenge effects of the lead were so severe that we finally banned it. Midgely would publically wash his hands in the mixture – even inhale it – to prove how benign it was. He eventually had to take a year off to recover from lead poisoning; but he never wavered in defending tetraethyl lead.
Robert Frost once wrote,
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things.
To yield with a grace to reason ...
Midgely was committed to his creation and could not commit the treason of yielding to its terrible effects.
Three things are true. And the third is our ongoing repair of revenge effects, to create the next advance. And they incur the next set of revenge effects. Those of us who can yield as we go smooth the process along, but we find that so hard to do. We engineers carry out our reason-for-being – the improvement of life on Earth – by correcting and advancing. Too bad that it is so very, very hard to complete the process by yielding with grace to reason.
Dr. John Lienhard is a retired professor of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston. He’s the founding author and voice of the nationally-aired radio program, “The Engines of our Ingenuity.”