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Can you help?

Believe it or not, engineering is a happy profession. E&T explores how it can spread that feel-good factor to a gloomy world.

Are you happy in your work? Past surveys probably cannot reflect current fast-changing economic circumstances, but in February last year the Roevin Engineering Recruitment company reported higher levels of career satisfaction (over 70 per cent) among professionals in their sector, as compared with those in other fields of employment.

It seems that engineering has always been an emotionally rewarding trade. Back in 1991, two researchers at the State University of New York at Geneseo, James Watson and Peter Meiksins, investigated the question: 'What Do Engineers Want? Work Values, Job Rewards and Job Satisfaction.' Unsurprisingly, they concluded that "the level of challenge and the intrinsic interest of the work is the central predictor of satisfaction".

In a more recent study, Meiksins found many practitioners obstinately avoided promotion, even surrendering the possibility of higher salaries, in order "to stay entrenched in the actual work of engineering rather than moving into supervisory positions". It's not the money (although it helps) but the trade itself that brings satisfaction to those lucky enough to work in it.

Now rephrase the question. Does the work of engineers make other people happy? In their 1991 paper, Watson and Meiksins voiced the concern that "contemporary engineers have become highly focused - perhaps overly so - on the gratification derived from technical work as a process".

During the last century, when certain engineers reached positions of power and influence in commerce and politics, there was a tendency for some of them to believe that, if only a better 'technical process' could be invented for society as a whole, then everyone might be happier.

Social credit

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a prominent member of the IET's forerunner organisation, the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), devoted himself to the dream of reshaping British society.

Clifford Hugh Douglas was Superintendent at the Royal Aircraft Factory in Farnborough during the First World War: an influential and privileged post, won by virtue of his globe-trotting experience in a wide range of official assignments. When, in 1916, he began talking about economics instead of aircraft, many people listened. Douglas wanted to "eliminate emotional irrelevancies" from the question of money. Cash flow, he believed, could be ordered with the same mechanical logic as "the movement of trains or the running of a factory".

Key to Douglas's thinking was the idea of 'social credit'. He observed that the total value of products emerging from industry always greatly exceeded the total cash available to consumers. Therefore, the only way for most people to buy anything is for them to become indebted to banks or loan companies. Douglas suggested that gross national wealth should be distributed so that people could then spend it on products without falling into debt. Meanwhile, the industries that made those products were to be rationalised along more efficient lines.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the 'scientific management' theories of an American mechanical engineer, Frederick Winslow Taylor, had gained wide acceptance. His 'time and motion' studies were supposed to help factory workers become more productive.

Utilitarianism

Taylor and Douglas were adherents of 'Utilitarianism', the philosophy (championed by the mid-18th century British social reformer Jeremy Bentham) that aims towards "the greatest good for the greatest number" of people. Happiness is a key Utilitarian aim, the prime measure of a society's functional success; but are engineers best judged to define it? Douglas's scheme for social credit might have worked if everyone had agreed to participate, but, of course, those individuals whose happiness depended on the freedom to pursue personal wealth obviously didn't like it; and to many American factory workers, Frederick Taylor's quest for improved output looked suspiciously like more work for less pay: not at all what he had intended.

If Taylor was demonised as an exploiter of workers, Douglas was labelled a Socialist, much to his fury. He loathed the conventions of left-right political debate. "The proper function of Parliament is to force all activities to be carried on so that the public may derive the maximum benefit from them. Once that idea is grasped, the criminal absurdity of the party system becomes evident," he said.

Douglas was certainly not alone in believing that educated technicians, men of science and logic (and yes, in these Utopian visions, it was usually men that were in charge) were best placed to govern us. Unfortunately, the rest of the world continued to think of politics as a meaningful endeavour, and Douglas's theories never really took hold.

While HG Wells admired Douglas, he felt that social credit wasn't sufficiently radical. It wasn't just Britain that needed reinventing but the whole world. Nation states, with their sordid rivalries and wars, should be dissolved in favour of a single World State governed by people drawn from the engineering and technical spheres, with aeronautical experts especially relied upon for their globe-spanning high-altitude perspective.

Wells proposed a "plan for the reorganisation of production and distribution, organising the transport of the world by sea and land and air as one system", while paying "very little heed to out-of-date political divisions...What need is there for a lot of politicians and lawyers to argue about the way things ought to be done, confusing the issue?".

The 1936 science fiction movie 'Things to Come' put some pretty pictures to these beguiling yet deeply flawed ideas. Neither Wells nor Douglas ever really solved the problem of how to obtain consent for government at the hands of scientists and engineers, without relying on the "emotional irrelevancies" of popular democracy. In their efficient yet over-governed worlds, we would always have to ask, as the Romans did: Quis custodiet custodiam? "Who's guarding the guardians?"

Douglas hoped that "engineering methods" could be "extended to cover forces of a metaphysical and psychological character". Just like any engineer, what he really wanted was reliable standardised components for his great schemes. That would have meant people. Of course, people tend not to fit into imposed frameworks unless coerced by fear and force, or - more subtly and effectively - by the exact opposite of fear. Neil Postman, author of 'Amusing Ourselves to Death', points out that "In George Orwell's '1984', people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World', they are controlled by inflicting pleasure".

In Huxley's prescient novel, genetic engineering is allied to freely available narcotic drugs, compulsory sexual promiscuity and sensorily beguiling movies in order to keep everyone 'happy'. Far from being cruel oppressors, the bio-engineering technicians in charge of this eerie world are Utilitarians down to their bones. "The greatest good for the greatest number" is their motto.

In the foreword to a 1946 reissue of 'Brave New World', Huxley wondered, sarcastically, if the large-scale engineering and organisational brilliance that had so recently created the atomic bomb and the industrialised massacres of Nazism could eliminate human misery. He wrote: "The most important Manhattan Projects of the future will be vast government-sponsored inquiries into what the politicians and the participating scientists will call 'the problem of happiness' - in other words, the problem of making people love their servitude."

Re-engineering the psyche

It's becoming clear that we really could re-engineer ourselves so as to become better suited for the smooth running of a Huxleyan Utopia. According to Professor Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute: "All kinds of emerging technologies, such as neuropharmacology, artificial intelligence and cybernetics, and nanotechnologies, have the potential to enhance human abilities."

David Pearce is cofounder with Bostrom of the World Transhumanist Association, a non-profit organisation whose stated goal is that people should become "better than well" via the ethical use of technology.

He insists that "it should be technically possible to get rid of all suffering within a century or two, but its abolition would be practical only if, as in the moon-landing programme or the human genome project, there was a degree of social consensus. Many people's negative reaction to the idea of a world without suffering comes from a fear that someone is going to be manipulating and controlling them".

Bostrom concurs: "It's one thing if we are talking about adult, competent citizens deciding what to do with their own bodies. If, on the other hand, we are thinking of modifying children, or selecting embryos, then there is another set of ethical questions that arise."

Imperfect is perfect

In his epic 1945 essay 'The Open Society and Its Enemies', Karl Popper, the foremost philosopher of science, tells us: "Our dream of heaven cannot be realised on Earth."

He was dismissive of what he called Utopian Engineering, or "the reconstruction of society as a whole, by means of sweeping changes whose practical consequences are hard to calculate". He advocated, instead, "piecemeal engineering" as a more realistic response to the wayward, chaotic challenges of society. "Only when we are in possession of something like a blueprint of the society at which we aim, can we begin to consider the best means for its realisation." And that, of course, is an impossible goal, "owing to our limited experiences".

OK, so there's no catch-all technical, mechanical, electrical or genetic solution to society's ills, but this is actually good news for engineers. This profession calls for people who love problem-solving. A world without challenges wouldn't be a happy place for them. On the other hand, the world as we actually find it - messy, unpredictable, argumentative, constantly crying out for repairs and improvements in the face of unforeseen breakdowns and restless human desires - now, that's a place where engineers can truly find happiness, while helping others to find some, too.

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