Rereading the Damore Memo: on the Dangers of Systems Engineering and the Importance of Engineering Art
Earlier this year, right-winged news sources, rallying around Damore and his sexist memo, stated that the main stream media misinterpreted the memo and spun it in a way that could only be harmful, perpetuating the echo-chamber Damore attempted to outline. They were right in a way. MSM glossed over some of the most disturbing aspects of the memo, but instead of perpetuating so-called echo chambers that use sound arguments to “silence” misogynists, which is part of a healthy democracy and in no way violates a person’s first amendment rights, news outlets only shifted the story to align with a more easily digested and entertaining narrative, where people like Steve Bannon and Damore are intelligent enough to and capable of disguising their bigotry in ways that let them infiltrate our society and undermine democracy like mini-Moriartys on a rampage. Not that there aren’t hidden ideologically contorted misogynists at our workplace or in our social spaces, just that most of the time they’re loudmouths who don’t seek to lay their twisted rationalizations out in ink or electricity. Instead, they parrot. They reiterate bits of Fox News and Breitbart like someone has them trained to squawk for evangelically-stale communion crackers. And if they do outline their thoughts, they tend to do so anonymously on the internet. Damore is a different type of beast and warrants a closer inspection. The fact that the confidence he felt in his own logic compelled him to make such an effort to write his thoughts down and share them instead of expressing his views by repeating right-winged media sources is a sign that something else was at work.
At the very least, I feel that Damore’s memo offers a glimpse of the underlying system of beliefs that gives certain misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic people the confidence required to outline and share their thoughts with a well-educated audience as if they’re the supremely logical Yoda-like good guys of our story. We owe it to ourselves as a society to ask what sort of ideological conditions made it easy for someone like Damore to develop their indefensible ideas on gender and where those conditions are perpetuated. In my view, the guiding ideas of systems engineering that many places of higher learning use to educate young engineers play a big part in perpetuating dangerous conceptions of being, which provide an underlying logic to bigoted systems of belief like the one Damore expresses, and the best way to counteract these aspects of an engineering education might be to ask engineering students to use their skills to make art.
I want to be clear before I go any further, though. I do not want to suggest that the process of systems engineering is solely responsible for problematic beliefs and opinions like those Damore expresses in his memo. And this is not an indictment of educators, who work everyday for little to nothing in an effort to help their students realize their full potential.*
Now back to it. Damore writes in one of his many bullet-lists, “We can make software engineering more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration. Unfortunately, there may be limits to how people-oriented certain roles and Google can be and we shouldn’t deceive ourselves or students into thinking otherwise (some of our programs to get female students into coding might be doing this).”
That’s a big bite for such a small bullet-point, but we’ve evolved to grow big teeth. First, we’ll touch on the joys of pair programming, and then we can use those as a hammer to crack the nut of what Damore really means when he claims that “there may be limits to how people-oriented Google can be.” Let’s dig in.
Imagine: you’re pair programming as part of a senior-level college project. You haven’t slept in over 48 hours, and neither has your partner. By this point, you smell like burnt caffeine and a notable lack of deodorant. Both of you are locked in a small, windowless room. You and your partner have spent all night with a DFR Turtle, a type of two-wheeled programmable robot system made for DIY’ers and classrooms. I say you and your partner, but your partner has been watching Selena Gomez and Sam Hunt music videos all night. They gave up 12 hours ago. You, who are practically high on 4 cups of coffee, a monster energy drink, and two Krispy Kremes, are your own last hope. If you don’t turn the robotic system into a Robot capable of playing tick-tac-toe across a taped floor, moving around and beeping it’s particular X or O selection while displaying the game on an LCD screen that works half the time you power it, by 9 am the next morning, you won’t become an Engineer, and the thousands upon thousands of dollars you’ve taken out in the form of state and private loans to become an engineer will come crashing down on you and your sick grandmother, who was kind enough to co-sign on the private loan that your parents didn’t have the credit scores to sign off on. It’s not the fun of programming that has kept you up these last two days — it’s the fear of harming yourself and those you love by failing to make a system into a Robot and yourself into an Engineer.
You press the button on the robot again, bidding it to do the task you programmed it to do, and it knocks your partner’s Mountain Dew onto their computer, tossing a shower of sparks that might just be exciting enough to keep you up another two hours. Cursing the robot, hands in the air like a toddler with an expanded vocabulary, you pick it up and tell it to do what you damn well tell it to do before pressing the button again. And again: there’s little hope of becoming an engineer (and by extension a successful STEM demi-god of the 21st century, according to millions of dollars in propaganda) when your technology won’t do what you ask it to. So you press the button one more time and, paradoxically, pray for more sparks to keep you up all night.
Does that sound like some sort of brainwashing task to you — one capable, by its mere demand of completion for pass or fail, by its repetition, and by the feeling of powerlessness it creates, of instilling a worldview into a tired and scared young person? This is my personal experience with pair programming, which Damore holds up as potentially the single most inclusive aspect of Google. But is there any wonder, considering the light his memo casts cooperation in (hooray for teaming), why he does? It almost seems like a Freudian slip — a callback to a moment of tension and genesis, when certain tendencies and aversions were solidified, while others were found to be lacking, and when it first became apparent that, like the turtle robot, people could also fail to accomplish the jobs they’ve been given.
Not every pair programming group is going to be the same, and certainly most undergraduate project groups aren’t this bad, but many do involve lopsided amounts of repetitive work on difficult systems towards the achievement of a specific goal in stressful situations. It only makes sense that the process of achieving that goal would be ingrained in a young student as much as, if not more than, the educational purpose of achieving that goal. And more importantly, if we consider the systems engineering precepts that were undoubtedly used by our example students in developing a functional robot, and by extension a generalized process of engineering education, we might suggest that something like pair programming could be part of the overall process that allows Damore to believe the word “limits” belongs in a bullet point with “collaboration” in the context of gender diversity, specially when another word, “profits,” looms in the pre-optimized background.
Engineering students in undergrad face situations like this several times throughout their college careers, if not bi-weekly as part of a grueling lab addition to a necessary course. I went through several similar and simultaneous labs when I was going through school — in robotics, communications systems, FPGA programming, signals processing, etc. All of the labs had the same goal, determined by the religious application of systems engineering, whether obvious or not: make the Thing.
To make the Thing, the process of which separates science and engineering and might explain why scientists are typically, in my experience, more open-minded than engineers, a system has to accomplish a set of predetermined goals. That is, for a system to transcend the sum of it’s parts and become a Thing, that system has to satisfy a set of teleological definitions. One example is the conglomeration of silicon and copper we call a circuit, which only becomes a Smart Thermometer or a Garage Opener or a full-fledged Computer if it accomplishes specific tasks that are independent of their physical manifestations as mixes of silicon and copper. And if that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. (It is not however, new: teleological definitions of being have been a favorite of baffled dudes who think really hard since Aristotle.) The steps to get from a system to a Thing are many and knotted, like most ideological frameworks, and by understanding them better we might be able to better understand people like Damore, who makes claims of the nature, “I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists…” before going on to to prove that sexism exists by showing how hypocritical his views of diversity and inclusion are.
So off we go into the wonderland of Things.
The Thing concept is probably best represented by the famous Turing Test. I act like a Human Being, therefore I am a human being. I do a task, therefore I am a Thing. (We may love to quote dead philosophers to show how smart and hip we are, but our society moved well beyond Descartes when we entered the world of computational subjectivity, where the only subject we acknowledge is one that delivers Doritos and dishwasher soap to our door in less than two days after the impulse push of a big, programmable button.) This is the world that Damore’s memo reveals, and it’s here, where everything is subjected to a never-ending Turing test, that we can locate the seemingly forever frozen but quickly melting glaciers that we call Things.
The process of making a Thing is sanctified in our engineering schools as Systems Engineering, which like many interesting ideas can be traced back to efforts made at Bell Labs in the 40’s and has roots in post-WWII Japanese manufacturing. Systems engineering is essentially the process of turning a system into a Thing by reducing the various aspects of it to the pre-determined performance of sub-Things that the laypeople call parts. From a systems engineering perspective, a part is a sub-Thing that has its own teleological definition (outlined in datasheets, which this is an example of) and performs a very specific task necessary to the realization of the system as a Thing. The drive motors powering the wheels on a DFR Turtle Robot, for instance, are sub-Things or parts that move the whole system across the floor by turning the wheels. Parts are simple compared to the unified system, and a system is made into a Thing by optimizing the organization of the parts that constitute it. The majority of senior-level engineering courses meant to showcase four years of very expensive and risky education at reputable places of higher learning are centered around these principles — parts and optimization — of systems engineering.
Importantly, parts are replaceable and pre-optimized. They come made to go, both in the sense of go meaning “made to work” and go meaning “toss that shit in the trash.” Parts fill the role they’re given, and the role assigned to a part cannot change to fit a broken part without compromising the teleological definition of the Thing. Many times, near the end of my own engineering education, I was advised to simply replace parts of a system or to substitute new parts for defective (i.e. not as useful for the overall system but still operating correctly) parts in an effort to create a working final product or Thing. In fact, because of the proliferation of useless parts that any project would acquire over the course of its development, I had to carry around an ammo box full of resistors, transistors, and ICs with me at all times during the later years of my engineering education — just in case I needed one for something new. It comes down to the simple fact that one of the most common ways to fix a Thing is to pull out a part, throw it in the trash (or your box of goodies), replace it with a shiny new part, and pray that the system works. At least that process takes less time than checking your own logic and going back to the drawing board to work through possibly months of calculations, some of which you probably don’t remember, and sometimes it pays off.
I want to emphasize again that from a systems engineering perspective that a Thing is an optimized system, and a system is a sum of pre-optimized (or educated, to bring people, possibly brainwashed by their systematized education, back into this metaphor) replaceable parts. For instance: the Thing we call a Human Being is an optimized system of cells that each perform their task. If one of those cells decides to pull an all-nighter making copies of itself, part of the human being becomes Cancer, which is different altogether from what a human being is. In this way, a the teleological necessity of a part is altered to match its broken behavior, and the part becomes a Thing in its own right. If enough of the human being becomes cancer, it dies and no one calls it a human being anymore. Despite all the formaldehyde, it becomes decay. It becomes mud. Like the student from our example who fails to become an engineer, it becomes a biological system incapable of fulfilling the goals that made it a Human Being in the first place.
Thus, the Thing melts into a system. But the image of the iceberg remains frozen in time as something to be achieved by tweaking the temperature. If the iceberg melts, you remove the sun. If a business fails or suffers, you reorganize or remove employees. In the mind of a person pressed by an engineering education to adhere to the tenets of systems engineering, it’s as simple as that.
But a Thing will not simply melt. It decomposes. In time, as the teleological definition of its being breaks down, it becomes a handful of other Things. This is the confusing part of any ideology, something Althusser gets at more pointedly and impressively than anyone else with his definition of preeminent subjectivity, and something that the circular precepts of systems engineering cannot avoid. I admit that I don’t really know how to explain the infinity of things in Things, although others much more intelligent than me have taken a crack at it (although things in Things is not the same as a receding object), besides to point to the chicken and the egg. But I have no doubt that every engineering student has felt the eeriness of knowing that nothing is precisely sound, because everything can always be more precise. The eeriness of precision, which is really the eeriness of things in Things, can give a person a divine sense of confidence in the future, as if you know that there’s enough worth discovering in that infinity between your fingers that genuine progress will never be in danger. It can also make you very afraid. When I stand over an open coffin, I have a sense of slipping — of unliving my place as a son, as a brother, as a lover, as an engineer, as a student, as a person born when I was and where I was, as a conglomeration of organs and cells and bacteria — and maybe that fear of slipping is what I’m really after. Maybe that fear of slipping, the idea of which has led me to edit this already too-long post over and over again, and which I could never have enough time to confront, was what really compelled Damore to write his own treatise. But I digress.
And we can go further in a more exacting direction. Think of a Thing as a brand — like Google. From this viewpoint, we should consider how Damore, or the other self-aware parts of a brand with the power to organize it, like the software engineers writing the code that gives you ideologically affirming search suggestions, orient themselves and their bigoted beliefs within the Thing that is Google. This leaves us with a question:
How does a person steeped in systems engineering rationalize their own existence as part of someThing greater?
Assuming that a given person trained in systems engineering desires a system of engineers and designers and servers and social media managers and networking cable and investors and buildings and janitors and office workers to be Google, imagine that one function of the part this person wants to play as an employee of Google, which this person wants to be in order to achieve their desire of seeing a system become Google, and which they either feel validated or forced to play by the sacrifice they make to become a replaceable part that can help the system become Google, is to organize itself and those around it via the very principles of systems engineering that gave them the part to play in the first place. There’s a loop here that’s very crucial to comprehend: in order to optimize the process of organization that will guarantee the employee it will not be replaced like any other defective part, which we can assume they do not want to do, since they have connected their performance as a part of Google to the success of this system they have joined in being Google, and which is a twofold delicate position this person assumes when they also tie their livelihood to their status as an employee of Google, this person who hopes to be forever an effective employee of Google needs to be able to replace the supposedly defective people around it. No other method of organization will be as efficient — no function as an employee as optimized — without the ability to dismiss and acquire new workers at will. (Hence the manager of grunts has a more stable position than the grunts, and the manager of managers of grunts has a more stable position than the lower level managers, etc.) And in order for the people around an employee to be replaceable in a way that is maximally optimized, they must be reduced to sub-Things or parts with predetermined functions, like Man or Woman or Donut Guy or Engineer.
It is only fair, says this person, for me to reduce everyone around me to a part in a grand machine, since I have myself been reduced to such a part — either by the need for money, or by my love for Google, or both, or maybe even by the process of education undertaken at the school where I was trained to be an engineering part that performed systems engineering tasks acceptably well in the world tech-business machinery.
Viewed from this systems-engineering steeped orientation, a likely orientation of many optimization-minded optimists who claim they want to make the world a better place, Damore’s memo does not seem like an inciting example of misogyny. Instead, it reads like a sacrificial call to remember systems engineering — to remember the education of our youth, which was ingrained in us through dangerous toil at supposedly hyper-liberal and left-leaning institutions of higher learning that also taught us about the differences between equality and inequality (some of us for the first time) — and to recall the dangers of treating parts as Things. Most frighteningly, when we view Damore’s memo through the trick-mirror of systems engineering, we see it in the affluent neo-conservative light that Fox News and other right-winged outlets claimed it as: a rational savior’s swan song. The echo chamber that Damore outlined is not one that represses him — it’s one that enables him. And this echo chamber is the echo chamber of systems engineering, which we wrap around our young engineers as they progress through their education.
The danger Damore outlines is paramount for anyone steeped in systems engineering: there is no optimization without easy to organize and replaceable parts, and noThing like Google without the optimization of those parts. If you believe in the goal of Google and feel like say, the printers that barely work or Charlie in the cubicle down the hall who spilled Mountain Dew on your laptop this morning are keeping the system as a whole from becoming Google, then you can and should replace either of these defective parts with different and hopefully better optimized parts in an effort to make the overall system more of an optimized Thing. If you instead elevated Charlie to a Thing, you would focus on changing the sub-Things required to make the human system in the cubicle down the hall more of a Charlie, and that would take a lot more time — not to mention how difficult it would be to say what type of Charlie was best for Google.
At this point, the logic that made Damore confident enough to share his beliefs is clear. If you apply systems engineering to any organization of people, including most importantly yourself, which is something good and right to do if you believe in the power of institutions like Google or America, whether it be a tech company or a government or a bunch of kids in robotics lab at 3:00 am, you have to reduce those people to parts of the system in order to optimize that system and make it a Thing. Whether it was something that you wanted or something that you feel has been forced on you, systems engineering teaches that the reduction to and optimization of parts is the only way to make yourself an efficient and difficult-to-replace part of the system we call society. The sense of self-sacrifice developed by this loopy logic is what differentiates systems bigotry from the typical idea of bigotry that saturates pop culture and gives it a sense of shock-value, although, like a teleological definition of being, it’s not new. The claim of “I too am a part of something greater” is a classic enabler (hi there Crusaders). But while we’ve been taught to look for it in religion and cult-groups like the KKK, we have yet to confront the bigotry inherent in STEM that the systems engineering programs undertaken at our most valued institutions of higher learning enforce.
Another aspect to briefly consider is the problem created by the system/Thing binary and the never-endedness of optimization, similar to the problem of things in Things, which both work to perpetuate cycles of systematic bigotry. Systems can always be optimized more and be made into more of a Thing. Like an iceberg that can always theoretically coat itself with more frozen water, the status of a Thing is never fully achieved and is always in danger. If we see the Make America Great slogan in this light, it looks like the fascination with MAGA might correlate with the onset of Thing-ideology, what I’ll call Thingism from now on, in American neoliberal frameworks saturated with students of systems engineering and the businesses that hope to profit by exploiting them. It is an adherence to Thingism and the anxiety in everyThing, reinforced by an engineering education and the financial success it brings in many young lives, that lets people like Damore insist that they aren’t misogynists or racists but data-analysts of the human variety looking to do the world some good by optimizing its various parts. And it’s complete bullshit.
The STEM sickness that infests systems engineering isn’t a product of the 21st century. Like many things that leave a bad taste in your mouth, systems bigotry is a reemergence. A long long time ago, in a colony far away, similar arguments flew under the flag of empiricism and natural history. In fact, the logic in Damore’s memo is similar to the logic employed by another famously bigoted American man, Thomas Jefferson, in his arguments for gradual emancipation. In Notes on the State of Virginia, the original well-meaning but bigoted memo, Jefferson writes:
I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question `What further is to be done with them?’ join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only. Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.
Several of the same major points in this excerpt from Jefferson also appear in Damore’s memo: a justified sense of moral superiority and a nod towards possible equality, a suggestion and call for acknowledgement of natural difference, and a desire for some type of “freedom” that establishes and perpetuates those differences in a supposedly natural way. What marked Jefferson’s bigotry was a sense that empiricism was truth and that empirical knowledge was absolutely knowable, and what probably killed similar beliefs for a time was the rise of Victorian sentiments and Romantic values (leading eventually to the Modernist and Postmodern values that are beginning to fade in our contemporary society), which emphasized the untruth of absolutes and explored the beauty of what can always be possible.
The correlation between the rise of Silicon Valley and the emergence of Thingism makes sense when you consider the relationship between empiricism and systems engineering. Without some form of empiricism, there would be no optimization, and systems would have no way to become a Thing. And while the absolute empiricism employed by Jefferson is clearly flawed, today’s readers might not recognize the similarity of empirical knowledge to the world of Big Data that in many cases allows systems engineers to decide what constitutes a Thing. The difference is only a fuzzy one: while one marks a person with a knife, the other colors them with a paintbrush. Probabilities, margins of error, and the importance of sample sizes all work in systems engineering to cloud the window through which we have been taught to criticize the empirical classification that structures what most people would consider bigotry. The systems bigotry in Thingism is more difficult to identify because it clouds empirical classifications with the smoke of complicated math and unimaginably large numbers, but it is ultimately the same beast.
I would also suggest that the inherent cloudiness of empiricism brought about by systems engineering, and not the success of that strategy in the field of designing useful products, is also what make it most valuable, solidifying its position as a noble pursuit in a neoliberal society that values value above all things. There’s a reason that both Slavery and Silicon Valley, one the most problematic institution of its time and the other perhaps the most problematic of our current era, were and are also the most profitable.
But what I’m really trying to work my way through as I’m writing this, is how an engineering education in the 21st century might have created thousands of people — there are undoubtedly more nice-guy bigots like Damore out there working for all of the big and small tech companies — who see their fellow coworkers as sub-Things that can and should be replaced or re-positioned to optimize systems in ways that make those systems functional Things. My meager education in Foucault’s lectures on the security state, the always half-full philosophy of deconstruction, and an the workings of Big Data all help scratch the surface of what I’m getting at, but it’s more than that. The problem here isn’t a phenomenological one, where we’re struggling to figure out the best way to know something we can’t quite touch — the seed that grows into the bigotry present in Damore’s memo is a distortion of the belief about what a human being fundamentally is. And an engineering education focused on systems engineering fundamentally teaches students that what matters is the ability of an organization, be it an organization of code or circuits or people or cells, to fulfill a predetermined goal and become a Thing. Damore writes:
Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principled reasons for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google — with Google’s diversity being a component of that. For example, currently those willing to work extra hours or take extra stress will inevitably get ahead and if we try to change that too much, it may have disastrous consequences. Also, when considering the costs and benefits, we should keep in mind that Google’s funding is finite so its allocation is more zero-sum than is generally acknowledged.
Damore may want to point a finger at Google, but he is obviously oblivious to the social engineering that influenced his own conceptions of reality before he even interviewed for his current position. Not that Damore bears no responsibility for the heap of crap he unleashed and the damaging validation it provided to other people with questionable systems of belief, but that we need to acknowledge our complicity as a society in fertilizing the soil in which these types of beliefs take root. The operational usage of “tech” and Google (teleological definitions of being), optimization of principled reasons (optimized ordering of parts), and the specter of zero-sum (a system/Thing binary fantasy) are all derivative of an education in systems engineering. More than that, systems engineering allows men, and especially white men, to relish in the fantasy of control that still provides the base of their definition as a Citizen in today’s society. The myths of Zuckerberg and Gates, similar to the myth of Thomas Jefferson, are in many ways the myths of white men who control armies of technological sub-Things, including employees, who do their bidding without question.
Until we do away with the most basic concepts of systems engineering in the way we educate young engineers, we’ll continue to literally brainwash students — by holding unimaginable debt over their heads, by threatening their families with financial ruin, by tying their success as a Human Being to their ability to graduate under certain precepts — into thinking like Damore. And, thanks to the push for STEM by various public and private entities, which might be worth looking into if you want to root out the propagation of modern Thingism, more and more young people will sign up to become Damores. This isn’t a conspiracy theory — it’s what we’re encouraging our children to do to themselves.
We can start by getting rid of everything object oriented, both in engineering and in our greater society. Not that these systems aren’t useful, but thinking about relationships as objects like Java or Graham Harman (looking at you, Author Function), even as objects that always withhold a bit of themselves, instead of as collaborations of systems, like these electrical impulses and words, reinforces the viewpoints of Thingism. We need a position of unengineered systems instead. We need something like Donna Haraway’s SF, which she outlines in Staying with the Trouble. Most importantly, we need to get rid of the teleological definition of being at the heart of contemporary engineering education. One way to do this would be to have young engineers work with disruptive systems that don’t behave well, like mobile robots that might go one way when you push the button the first time and spill Mountain Dew all over you the second time. Anyone who has experienced a bad internet connection knows the frustrating feeling that comes with acknowledging technology isn’t your slave to order around. We need to counteract those emotions from a place of understanding before they lead us to envy the overlords of Thingism. Coding on easy-to-use but difficult to master microprocessors like Arduino systems provides a simple way to acquaint people with the frustrating aspects of tech like analog to digital conversion circuitry. But we can do more.
I’m a strong advocate for what I call engineering art. While most people see engineering art as another cross pollination of educational experiences with the typical benefits and faults, I passionately feel that engineer art has more to offer than mass-producing innovative students straight out of a Silicon Valley sitcom. Art, unlike engineering, is not defined by a goal it strives to fulfill. It makes its own goals. By asking students to engineer art, we ask them to envision a way to use the skills they’ve learned without fulfilling a pre-determined demand. In essence, instead of treating a technology (including people) as a sub-Thing that only fits into our lives when it fulfills the purpose we give it, engineering art teaches people to work collaboratively. Robots that pass the Turing Test are no more Human Beings than the people that programmed them, and a lot of those people need to realize that their existence as human beings is dependent on the subjugation of robots in the same way the existence of White People is dependent on the subjugation of Black People or how the existence of Man is dependent on the subjugation of Woman. By engineering art, we can learn to escape the real echo-chamber, the echo-chamber of Thingism that reinforces the binary of sub-Thing/Thing, and move towards a future that is not only technologically sophisticated, but one in which people live as responsible components of a complex and ever-changing system. Even if we can’t at this moment see as a society the importance of understanding our existence as components of an unengineered system, although I hope someday that we do, engineering sometimes frustrating art and not obedient programs might help people like Damore see that others, like themselves, are Things worth working with too.
While I’m attempting to shed light on what I believe to be a problematic process of education, I in no way intend to suggest that this process of education is solely responsible for a person’s problematic views. Instead, I suggest that a process of an education like the modern engineering education we put our young people through has the potential to provide people with predisposed and problematic beliefs new and maybe even more difficult to condemn (or at least novel and unfamiliar) ways of rationalizing those beliefs. Certain ways of educating young people might also be capable of familiarizing people who are not predisposed with problematic systems of belief about being, normalizing the behaviors correlating with those beliefs in the process — especially people who are already under severe social pressure, for whatever the reason, to fit in with whatever society claims to accept them. In this way, the processes I am attempting to examine might serve to both enable bigots and silence protesters.
I’m also talking less about some sort of hidden conversion therapy and more about the habitual ways of thinking formed by daily practices put forward by certain groups in society. In short, I suggest that an education in systems engineering affirms and fertilizes certain harmful organizations of reality by making them a part of the educational creative process, as opposed to what is being taught, thereby short-circuiting the healthy dose of skepticism that should be present in any learning experience.
This is also not an indictment of educators. I do no believe in any way that our educators are attempting to sway students to either the right or the left (although, increasingly, as sound arguments become a hallmark of the left worth disparaging on the right, it’s difficult to overlook the political necessity of certain lessons that demand to be taught). The majority of educators I know focus their classes on providing the students with the skills required to make their own informed decisions. I am arguing instead that the very process of education, especially an engineering education, decided on according to standards set by groups like ABET and coalitions of supposedly qualified people, undermines the efforts of those educators to develop students capable of investigating sound arguments in an equal and unprejudiced manner. Furthermore, I suggest that this process has influenced and will continue to influence students in ways that even their educators might not be fully aware of.
Like This? You can read my article, “The Life of Galileo (post Climate Change),” at the link below.