Tag Archives: Cennydd Bowles

epistemic humility vs. “the engineer’s disease”

This post is prompted in part by a post by Cennydd Bowles, in which he riff on Nathan Ballantyne’s notion of epistemic trespass. Reading it reminded me of a term I’ve seen frequently, most often on MetaFilter, where it has been part of the lexiconic furniture for some time. An ask-the-hive-mind entry on that site traces the notion of “the engineer’s disease” back to 2002, so it’s plausibly an internet-era coining—which, interestingly, means it’s a term critical of engineering which emerged during what might be seen as the peak of engineering’s cultural hegemony, and thus in hindsight a weak signal of sorts.

The engineer’s disease is related to (and perhaps subsumed by, if not subsuming of, the briefly better known solutionism); here’s a description from that MeFi page:

engineers and other technical folks assuming their technical knowledge of systems (usually computer, mechanical/electrical) gives them expertise in solving other complex issues

Very much a lay precursor to Ballantyne’s trespass, then, but the concept is much older than the term. As someone else in the MeFi thread points out, Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952) is a satire of “Engineer’s Disease writ large”, as they illustrate with a pithy quote from the novel which immediately brought me back to the experience of reading it:

“If only it weren’t for the people, the goddamned people,” said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, earth would be an engineer’s paradise.”

Bowles notes that epistemic trespass is ubiquitous in the public-intellectual sphere, and (rightly, I think) connects it to the capitalist imperatives that power the hot-take attention economy, albeit using kinder words than I have chosen. But he also notes its particular prevalence in the tech scene, broadly conceived, and his explanation for it seems plausible, particularly given his own identification with that scene:

Dabbling got many of us here in the first place, and a field in flux will always invent new topics and trends that need diverse perspectives. But by definition, trespass happens on someone else’s property; it’s common to see a sideways disciplinary leap that puts a well-known figure ahead of existing practitioners in the attention queue.

This is certainly inefficient: rather than spending years figuring out the field, you could learn it in months by reading the right material or being mentored by an expert. But many techies have a weird conflicted dissonance of claiming to hate inefficiency while insisting on solving any interesting problem from first principles. I think it’s an ingrained habit now, but if it’s restricted to purely technical domains I’m not overly worried.

Of course, it isn’t restricted to technical domains, so Bowles riffs on Ballantyne to recommend epistemic humility:

It’s easy to confuse knowledge and skills, or to assume one will naturally engender the other in time. Software engineers, for example, develop critical thinking skills which are certainly useful elsewhere, but simply applying critical thinking alone in new areas, without foundational domain knowledge, easily leads to flawed conclusions. ‘Fake it until you make it’ is almost always ethically suspect, but it’s doubly irresponsible outside your comfort zone and in dangerous lands.

No one wants gatekeeping, or to be pestered to stay in their lane, and there are always boundary questions that span multiple disciplines. But let’s approach these cases with humility, and stop seeing ourselves as the first brave explorers on any undiscovered shore.

We should recognise that while we may be able to offer something useful, we’re also flawed actors, hampered by our own lack of knowledge. Let’s build opinions like sandcastles, with curiosity but no great attachment, realising the central argument we missed may just act as the looming wave. This means putting the insight of others ahead of our own, and declining work – or better, referring it to others who can do it to a higher standard – while we seek out the partnerships or training we need to build our own knowledge and skills.

As Bowles notes, no one wants gatekeeping… but as one of the foundational notions in STS assures us, gatekeeping—or “boundary objects”—are exactly what allow us to even talk about “spheres” and “domains” of expertise in the first place. Which is perhaps to say that while no one thinks they want gatekeeping, we all do it, and it’s actually a vital part of how ideas move between domains; when it’s done right, those ideas retain a coherence and usefulness across their sites of use while allowing for more specific deployments at each site. When it’s done badly, well, you get what Bowles and Ballantyne and Vonnegut are talking about: the transposition of ideas as particularly parsed by engineers (or techies, or coders, or whoever else it might be) into spheres where those parsings are inappropriate, no matter how well-intended, and potentially destructive.

As with pretty much everything he writes, Bowles here aims to draw out the inherent good that he sees in the denizens of the tech domain, and I would note that it is this essential generosity of spirit on his part that makes him a writer I always read: to put it another way, while he thinks with domains, he does not think with them deterministically (in the way that the “engineer’s disease” label definitely does).

I believe (or at least I believe I believe) similarly that most people are basically decent and well-intentioned, but I suspect I take a more structural view than Bowles on the shaping of intention into action—which is to say, I suspect that the time for making reasonable pleas for the tech domain to wind its neck in a bit has long since passed. This is not due to any fundamental malice or recalcitrance on the part of engineers and techies, to be clear, but rather the extent to which that domain has achieved hegemonic levels of control and influence over economic and discursive systems.

Which, I suppose, could easily be parsed as a call for “more regulation”… and I suppose that, in a way, that’s exactly what it is. But it’s also a call for a reconceptualisation of what regulation means, as well as how it’s executed; regulatory capture is probably one of the biggest factors in the securing of that hegemony. Which means that this is really a call for a revaluation of our values around technology, with the proviso that for me the category of “technology” extends to things like regulation and governance as well as, y’know, gadgets and apps and such.

Indeed, perhaps that particular conceptualisation of technology, which—as many of my readers will already be aware, but, for the avoidance of doubt—is definitely not original or unique to me, is the keystone to the change I’m calling for. But it would have to be in turn a part of a broader renunciation of the implicit supremacisms of humanism itself, which in turn would need to recognise that such ideas can never be conquered, only dealt with dialectically.

These thoughts were brought to you by my having re-read a bunch of Latour over the holidays, and by my having binged my way through Claire North’s brilliant Notes from the Burning Age in the last two days; I’ll hopefully find the time to write up my thoughts on the latter in soon.

defeat the dread

Good chewy long-read from Cennydd Bowles, starting with a look at the ongoing situation (and a zinger of an opening line), and building out to a measured and respectful but nonetheless pointed dig at the futures industry:

For too long we’ve been serving the wrong goals: helping large multinationals and tech giants accrue more power and wealth at the expense of other actors, contributing to the atomisation of society by designing products for individual fulfilment ahead of the wellbeing of our communities. Our rethought world will need to prioritise people and societies, ecologies and environments, ahead of profit and productivity. If you use this crisis to thought-prophesise about the new era ahead, don’t you dare return to your cosy consulting gig with Palantir or Shell afterward. Own your impact. Act in the interests of this better world you espouse, and withdraw your support for the forces that brought us to the brink.

Selah. (Though it goes without saying that it’s yer Palantirs and yer Shells who are most likely to have the money to hire people after this sitch calms down some… and those who’ve taken their money before are unlikely to have too many qualms about taking it again.)

Setting my cynicism about the consultancy sector aside, Cennyd has a riff near the end that’s a timely reminder to me in the wake of yesterday’s long post about hope in the context of climate change:

… we will not succeed by simply evangelising our own paternalistic, privileged messages of hope upon others. We won’t convince others that we can conquer the climate crisis by pointing to our previous models of utopias yet unrealised. The only sustainable way to defeat dread is to give people the skills and the powers to forge their own preferable futures. Hope comes from communities, not from experts; it arises with empowerment and inclusivity, not the promises of politicians.

This is exactly the sort of work my postdoc project is intended to do, as luck would have it. But I need to remember that for “hope” to have a concrete meaning and manifestation, I have to come down out of the theoretical tower and do the work. That will be counter to my customs, certainly, but I’m confident—hopeful, even—that it’s not counter to my instincts.