Monday, September 10, 2007


Post-Industrial Engineering

Henry Petroski's book To Engineer Is Human raised an interesting question. One of the significant constraints on design in our contemporary world is cost. If you make something stronger (i.e., less failure-prone) than it needs to be, somebody else will design a thing that is cheaper to make and undersell you. In fact I had used that idea myself in an essay, the purpose of which I have forgotten: I said that if he wanted a microwave cavity that wasn't lossy a physicist would hog it out of a gold ingot, if he had one, whereas an engineer worries about 10 minutes of a worker's time.

That makes sense in our society in which money is the primary mark of social status. The protestant-industrial revolution has been characterized by upward mobility of the lower middle class by the acquisition of money; as opposed to the prior system of establishing status by being or serving a warlord. But the industrial age is over. Upward mobility stopped around 1950 because the sign of social status was the waste ( or unnecessary use) of resources, and there aren't enough resources to allow the women and people of color who live outside the industrialized world to waste resources at the same rate as bureaucrats in the developed world do. In fact the developed world is being characterized by downward mobility of lower-level bureaucrats who are becoming, in Toynbee's sense, an "internal proletariat".

The internal proletariat shows itself in the need to limit immigration from the undeveloped world, i.e., from the "external proletariat". That external proletariat is beginning to express hostility toward Western Civilization: as direct guerilla warfare among Islamic peoples, and as anti-colonialism among the Bolivarians of Latin America. According to Toynbee's scenario, Western Civilization will turn itself into a military dictatorship and run itself into the ground. Until that final stage we will experience constant guerilla war, since the guerillas do not have the infrastructure to "win" and Western Civilization is only trained to waste resources rather than use them to "win" and is too decadent to do anything creative.

The question is not how we save Western Civilization. It has served its purpose and needs to get out of the way with as little trauma as possible. The question is how we design the infrastructure of the post-industrial society.

One way has been described in This was based on the statement by Norbert Weiner, that when computers and robots are fully developed no one would be allowed to work unless they could do something better than the robots and computers. That suggested to me a society with an elite "Working class" of people doing creative activities and a larger "Liesure class" of people who merely needed to keep themselves amused.

All people would have an equal right to be themselves and food, shelter and health services would be there for the taking, produced and distributed by robots and computers and other, less sophisticated, machines. Each person would have, as a matter of right, his or her proportion of the annual global production.

The Working class would consist of "Journeymen" who were able to work with little or no supervision and "Masters" who were elected by their peers on the basis of a masterwork and who could take on apprentices. The apprentices would become journeymen when their masters decided they were ready.

The Liesure class would consist of groups of people whose customs showed mutual compliance in localities; and individualists who gathered in "Bohemias". Bohemias would be locations where the ordinary residents might not be creative but were capable of tolerating creative people. These areas might resemble the Latin Quarter or The Village or Haight-Ashbury.

I proposed that the primary universal constraint on behavior would be an abhorrence of waste, possibly because it was identified with the elite of the late industrial period. Whatever else anyone believed it would be considered extremely bad taste (or "nekulturni") to waste. There would be a universal, emotional adherence to the motto that used to be in military mess-halls: "Take what you need but eat what you take".

That would provide the tension in the creative act that cost does in our money-based society. It would eliminate the needless duplication of goods we now see in developed societies: if there were two products with the same function, quality and use of resources, the better would be chosen (by peer review) for production. Status among design workers would be determined by whose designs remained in use.

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