On “Engineering”…

I’ve been pondering what is is to be an engineer, lately, in the context of trying to work out what it is that I actually do and what sort of “contract” I feel I’m honouring (and with whom) by doing whatever that is that spend my days doing…

According to Wikipedia, [t]he term engineering … deriv[es] from the word engineer, which itself dates back to 1325, when an engine’er (literally, one who operates an engine) originally referred to “a constructor of military engines.” … The word “engine” itself is of even older origin, ultimately deriving from the Latin ingenium (c. 1250).

Via Wiktionary, [e]ngine originally meant ‘ingenuity, cunning’ which eventually developed into meaning ‘the product of ingenuity, a plot or snare’ and ‘tool, weapon’. Engines as the products of cunning, then, and hence, naturally, war machines. And engineers as their operators, or constructors.

One of the formative books in my life (mid-teens, I think) was Richard Gregory’s Mind in Science, from which I took away the idea of tools as things that embodied and executed an idea. You see a way of doing something or how to do something, and then put that idea into an artefact – a tool – that does it. Code is a particularly expressive medium in this respect, AI (in the sense of Artificial Intelligence) one way of explicitly trying to give machines ideas, or embody mind in machine. (I have an AI background – my PhD in evolutionary computation was pursued in a cognitive science unit (HRCL, as was) at the OU; what led me to “AI”, I think, was a school of thought relating to the practice of how to use code to embody mind and natural process in machines, as well as how to use code that can act on, and be acted on by, the physical world.)

So part of what I (think I) do is build tools, executable expressions of ideas. I’m not so interested in how they are used. I’ve also started sketching maps a lot, lately, of social networks and other things that can be represented as graphs. These are tools too – macroscopes for peering at structural relationships within a system – and again, once produced, I’m not so interested in how they’re used. (What excites me is finding the process that allows the idea to be represented or executed.)

If we go back to the idea of “engineer”, and dig a little deeper by tracing the notion of ingenium, we find this take on it:

ingenium is the original and natural faculty of humans; it is the proper faculty with which we achieve certain knowledge. It is original because it is the first “facility” young people untouched by prejudices exemplify upon seeing similarities between disparate things. It is natural because it is to us what the power to create is to God. just as God easily begets a world of nature, so we ingeniously make discoveries in the sciences and artifacts in the arts. Ingenium is a productive and creative form of knowledge. It is poietic in the creation of the imagination; it is rhetorical in the creation of language, through which all sciences are formalized. Hence, it requires its own logic, a logic that combines both the art of finding or inventing arguments and that of judging them. Vico argues that topical art allows the mind to locate the object of knowledge and to see it in all its aspects and not through “the dark glass” of clear and distinct ideas. The logic of discovery and invention which Vico uses against Descartes’s analytics is the art of apprehending the true. With this Vico come full circle in his arguments against Descartes. [From the Introduction by L.M. Palmer to Vico on Ingenium, in Giambattista Vico: On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians. Trans. L.M. Palmer. London: Cornell University Press, 1988. 31-34, 96-104. Originally published 1710.]

And for some reason, at first reading, that brings me peace…

…which I shall savour on a quick dog walk. I wonder if the woodpecker will be out in the woods today?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

One thought on “On “Engineering”…”

  1. Tony:

    First of all, let me thank you for your work. Despite the fact that I rarely have a direct need for the topics of your posts, I always find them interesting and see that they are an important part of a larger group effort to push the boundaries of engines and ingenuity in useful ways.

    I was chagrined however, to read in this post how you introduce, but do not delve in to, the military roots of engineering, and state that you do not care how your work is used.

    It seems to me that these two points may be connected to what has been most damaging to life and happiness thanks to engineering: serving violence and not considering uses and effects.

    If you do not spot the woodpecker, shouldn’t we ask why?

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