Swing and a Miss

How many times must you be spun before you completely lose track of the piñata? It’s fun to watch, but foolishness truly is swinging at nothing and convincing yourself you’re close to the target. For me, my target at the end of the day is change and I worry that this whole engineering thing is a big swing at nothing. 

Now this is a bit of an under-exaggeration. Just like societal change is a much larger target than a piñata, engineering is much more consequential than missing a swing. Engineering is a primary driver of negativity in the world. Its outputs are used for violence, consumerism, and to drive an already drastic socio-economic gap in our community. Even most of the “helpful” technologies such as electric vehicles and medical devices aren’t nearly as helpful as they claim to be. 

The reason this is true is also the reason why this doesn’t have to be the case. Engineering today is driven by the oppression of the unseen yet critically important majority of humans. How could engineering be a tool for positive change if a sheer 99% of applications for engineering today are to create a more favorable position for the oppressors? For instance, I spent the past summer in the medical device industry, everyday I felt the whiff of a missed swing against my cheek. 

It was a problem for me that the primary end-user of a lot of the products in the company’s portfolio was the same group that owned the company, which was the same group that filled most of the engineering jobs. And the groups that benefited the least from the medical devices out there were the ones doing the cleaning and in general holding the most underpaid positions. Regardless of the intent to “save lives,” you can’t deny that there is an unbalanced distribution of lives saved in the population which says something for the unequal perceived value of our lives by our community. 

On the input end of things, while this company’s public position involved nice-sounding words like diversity and sustainability, on the ground floor neither were visible with the naked eye. It didn’t stop employees from explaining why they believe in white supremacy and when asking about sustainability to upper management, they had no clue if there was anything more actionable about the company’s practices than them asking manufacturers and vendors if they were sustainable. At all points there is a lot of energy directed into a swing in the wrong direction and with each failed, unrestrained swing discombobulation compounds, gaps widen and people are harmed. 

But this doesn’t need to be the case. We live in a world driven by a very small percentage of the population. As engineers, we have the largest impact on what the output of engineering is, and so, if the output of engineering is widely negative, then that is on our shoulders. 

To take a moment to call out a soon-to-be old lover of mine. Electrical Engineering is a huge and very significant part of this equation. From the beginning of the supply chain to when it ends up in a landfill, the outputs of electrical engineering only perpetuate an unsustainable culture that has been built on the backs of non-white and low-income people. There is more hope in my eyes for organic electronics, but our current and silicon-based technology gets to us, the electrical engineers, filthy with oppression. How can we balance that out? I am not convinced we can turn these filthy components and supplies into a technology that counteracts and supersedes that hurt. And our intentions do not change that hurt.

Our responsibility as engineers does not end with intent, but with impact. We have to accept that responsibility and in doing so decide whether we will continue peddling oppression or whether we will aim towards brighter horizons. Most swings so far have been misses, but if we focus more on the end goal we can definitely start hitting the target.