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Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Case of the Engineer who could not Move beyond Science and being Meticulous

This might seem like a rather weird blog entry as I am going to write about baking – yes, I am referring to cakes, biscuits, pies and so forth!

Specifically I am referring to a cookery programme – a rather innovative one – broadcast on BBC1 on Tuesday September 17th 2013. It is called the Great British Bake Off – a baking competition run over several weeks where competitors are judged on the tasks set for them and each week one contestant is awarded the accolade of star baker, and another one is expelled from the programme.

Now to the matter of The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE)! What, you ask, has this to do with baking?

In a previous blog I have mentioned the IMechE’s tabloid-style magazine that drops through my letter box every month. The September 2013 issue was full of its usual hubris, and one item in particular: The case of the engineer who could not move beyond science and being meticulous. If you look into this issue, you will not find any article referring to this case. What you will see however is proud boasting (in the column entitled Engineering Eye) about an engineer appearing as a contestant in the Great British Bake Off.

What one reads about is an engineer, “wowing the judges with his precisely engineered baking” and how he “stayed cool (under pressure) and relied on science.” In Tuesday’s programme, the engineer was the one to be expelled, and one of the judges’ comments was very telling: “he started off a proper scientist, very meticulous, but that’s really where he stayed.” This, it can be said, well illustrates the problem with modern engineers and engineering. Put another way – unable to move beyond the past and no longer fit for purpose.

I am an amateur cook and baker myself and I know that it is not just about recipes, the science involved in cooking, and being meticulous (sometimes necessary but not always). One also has to have a passion for baking, to engage with the ingredients at an emotional level, and understand how textures and tastes can be used to create an emotional experience, both for the baker and for those that eat the end result, and also to experience that moment of joy together with the people one is baking for. There is also an ingredient in home baked produce that you will not find in any shop bought produce: a little bit of love! And this is the image of engineering that I would like to see developed, not a cold, soulless and mechanistic perspective, which is sadly what I saw when watching the Great British Bake Off.

Yes, we need people who can focus on the low level issues and who can bring precision to bear, and I have no doubt that the engineer in question is very good at his job, but we should understand well the dangers inherent in a perspective that values these attributes in an occupation, for they lead to great troubles, as the predicament of the modern world well illustrates.

Life’s precious moments and experiences are most definitely not about “faster, better, cheaper”. The tendency of the modern world to reduce the most valuable moments in our lives to something to be done more efficiently, which is a core value of engineering, should be deplored, not celebrated. We should not be seeking to promote as a role model the mechanistic worldview that is part of science and engineering, and we should most definitely discourage young people from working in an outdated, backward looking occupation such as engineering, lacking in vision, unable to provide thought leadership, and notably unable to engage in self questioning and criticism – this is the problem with hubris, as there is no room at all for doubt, hence one never is able to engage in thought leadership, and one must then create the delusion of such (as the IMechE and the IET do).

Throughout my writings you will find criticism of contemporary science, engineering and technology. This is done for a purpose. I am edging towards considering how these aspects of our civilisation can be changed. I started this blog back in July 2013, with a first entry which was entitled “This is the journey …” And indeed, coming to the realisation that science, engineering and technology are seriously flawed and no longer fit for purpose, is a journey – one of self discovery and learning, leading, in a very gradual way, towards the point where people begin to understand that a new path is needed. If you want to know more about this, then you will have to make the journey. This is the journey …

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