Engineering Philosophy:
Values and Design

Thursday, May 18th, 2006
"Bridging the disconnect between philosophy and engineering ...

"Engineering and Philosophy seem two worlds apart. But things and ideas are not disjunct in this world, and their synthesis is certainly essential in engineering design."
Dr. Louis

Massachusetts Institute
of Technology

Louis Bucciarelli is a Professor of Engineering and Technology Studies at MIT. He is the author of numerous publications including the book Designing Engineers (1994) and Engineering Philosophy (2003).

Technology Shaped By and Shaping Society
A technologically literate person recognizes that technology influences changes in society and has done so throughout history. In fact, many historical eras are identified by their dominant technology: Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze Age, Industrial Age, Information Age. Technology-driven changes have been particularly evident in the past century. Automobiles have created a more mobile, spread-out society; aircraft and improved communications have led to a "smaller" world and, eventually, globalization; contraception has revolutionized sexual mores; and improved sanitation, agriculture, and medicine have extended life expectancy. A technologically literate person recognizes the rate of technology in these changes and accepts the reality that the future will be different from the present largely because of technologies now coming into existence, from Internet-based activities to genetic engineering and cloning.

The technologically literate person also recognizes that society shapes technology as much as technology shapes society. There is nothing inevitable about the changes influenced by technology--they are the result of human decisions and not of impersonal historical forces. New technologies must meet the requirements of consumers, business people, bankers, judges, environmentalists, politicians, and government bureaucrats. An electric car that no one buys might just as well never have been developed. A genetically engineered crop that is banned by the government is of little more use than the weeds in the fields. In short, many factors shape technology, and human beings, acting alone or in groups, determine the direction of technological development.
The title is to be read in two ways: First, I will talk about the values and beliefs of engineers designing - the values that frame their thought and practical action in the design of new products and systems. Second, I will explore how engineers, in their designing, convey, via these same products and systems, certain values and norms that allow for particular kinds of use, social discourse and exchange - even ways of life - and limit, if not rule out, other kinds. Both themes are relevant to the question: Is technology “value free”?

To make this essay more than an op-ed exercise, I must explain what it is that engineers do when engaged in design. My perspective differs from those who view innovation as the creative production of a single individual, for - as I have argued in my book, Designing Engineers (MIT Press, 1994) - designing is a social process, one in which different participants, with different competencies, responsibilities and interests must negotiate their claims and individual contributions to the design if the process is to prove fruitful. I will talk about creativity but consider how being creative requires a political/contextual sensitivity as well as the courage to generate and develop novel ideas. I look then at how participants in design translate ideas and product specifications - all words on paper - into hardware that functions in accord with their intentions. I describe the role of scientific understanding, as embodied in instrumental models and simulations, in providing engineers with confidence in their designs.

Critical to addressing the value themes set out above is developing some understanding of how engineers view and characterize those for whom they are designing - the users and consumers of their productions. It is necessary as well to consider how well designers do their job. Engineers’ concerns about system quality, robustness, product safety, as well as economy, figure largely in their value systems. The picture I paint of designing is one of imperfection. That is, while participants in design may be very intelligent and competent people and strive to be fully rational in their designing, the process is never so instrumental, complete nor rational to guarantee an optimal design in accord with some stated criteria. This means that engineering values matter: The products and systems that surround us are defined in good measure by the values, norms and beliefs of engineers designing as well as by scientific principle, instrumental method and economic imperative.