Atemporal Engineering

[I wrote a blog over at flowxrg.com from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]


The Idea of Progress, the idea that advances in science, technology, and social organization produce linear improvements in the human condition, has been the dominant social narrative of Western Civilization since the Enlightenment.

Technical design – engineering – has been enslaved to the narrative of Progress for over 200 years. Science and technology, driven by rationality and the promise that man will one day fully dominate and control nature, has been a tool of capitalist industrialization, powering limitless growth and ever-increasing productivity.

But the narrative is crumbling, and everyone knows it.

“The psychology of the American Zeitgeist has been shattered by the failure of all of our national narratives.

“A diminishing of the relevance of the sovereign nation state, revealed in the insecure efforts to reinforce its very existence with the fantasy of border walls, the inability of governments large and small to service their own debt, and the dubious viability of governance by a monolithic “sovereign” in a world that is really run by networks.” 1

The claim of improved human condition is rendered grotesque in the face of emergent inequity between the very few and the very many.

The assumptions of limitless growth are running up against the physical limits of a finite world; an impending ecological self-correction is putting the fiscal economy in its place in the primary-secondary-tertiary hierarchy of reality. The assumptions and operations of the economic system are nakedly insane.

The ability of nation-states to fulfill their social contracts is hollowing out in the face of diffuse and distributed enemies. Strength is weakness. Over a trillion dollars and a decade of nation-building can’t secure peace, but $50 and five men can without personal consequence blow up a water pipeline that shuts down a natural gas refinery for a week that powers a power plant that supplies electricity to oil export pumps, resulting in a few billion dollars worth of lost exports. The ROI of violence in an online networked open source world is enormous.[2]

The dominant ideology of our civilization is irrelevant, ruined.

We know what industrial-era engineering and technological endeavors look like. The ruins of the unsustainable surround us. The interesting question is this:

What does post-industrial, network culture, atemporal engineering look like?

The idea that history ended, and that the market sorts that out, and that the Pentagon bombs it if that doesn’t work – it’s gone. The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.”

“What we are facing over a decade is a decade of emergency rescue, of resiliency, of attempts at sustainability, rather than some kind of clear march toward advanced heights of civilization. We are into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures, of new social inventions within networks, a world of ‘Gothic High-Tech’ and ‘Favela Chic’ (as I’ve called it), a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity, rather than a cathedral of history, and a utopia of futurity.”3

Bruce Sterling is talking about Atemporality for the Creative Artist. I suspect that Atemporality for the Engineer will be similar.

Technical design and engineering in particular has been a pawn in the narrative of human ascendancy.

The question is: what are we now? As progress, the nation-state, capitalism, and our economic systems are hollowing out and becoming their own punch lines, what is the role and relevancy of engineering? What does engineering look like that isn’t just one more rusty gear in the crumbling machine of the ruins of the enlightenment?

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[1] The Day the Narrative Died. http://nofearofthefuture.blogspot.com/2011/09/day-narrative-died.html

[2] Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. By John Robb.

[3] Atemporality for the Creative Artist. http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2010/02/atemporality-for-the-creative-artist/