The joy of engineering and the banality of products
I recently happened upon an article from Today's Engineer in which Doug Lamm contrasts the views espoused in Tibor Scitovsky's The Joyless Economy (1976) and those espoused in Samuel C. Florman's The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (1976). Scitovsky worries that populating our world (or, at least, the United States) with labour-saving and comfort-providing devices might leave devices' users with no challenges to meet, leading to boredom. Florman writes of the pleasures that engineers experience in the act of engineering, which provides exactly the challenges that Scitovsky worries we might engineer out of life.
Scitovsky and Florman's views are not mutually exclusive: engineers may very well have a wonderful time developing products that leave their users bored and lazy. This prospect might seem fairly depressing for a profession that takes pride in its ability to produce artefacts that improve people's lives.
Of course another way of looking at it is that the pleasure experienced in doing engineering is as valid and good a pleasure as any, so what further justification do engineers need? I don't feel any need to justify a Sunday hike, say, with any benefit to society beyond my own pleasure, so what other motivation should I need to write software? Is whatever pleasure I might experience in developing software diminished if the end result isn't particularly useful to anyone?
Yet I have to write software that pleases users if I expect the users to pay me for it. Perhaps the knowledge that I need to earn money from software development prevents me from taking quite so care-free an attitude to software as I do to hiking. Things might be different if I could afford to undertake software development purely as a hobby. Yet, even then, having adoring users surely increases an engineer's pride in his or her work, even if the users don't pay a cent for the product.
Engineers are perhaps fortunate that there is so much demand for what they do: engineers can make a living by performing work that they find challenging and satisfying. If the world appetite for roads, machines and computers ever diminishes, engineers might find themselves in a position similar to those of present-day artists who want to devote their lives to their art, but must make ends meet by doing odd jobs in which they can't make use of their skills.
Lamm concludes that technological innovation is, in and of itself, neither good nor bad, and that it is "the development of wisdom regarding the satisfying use of technology" that matters. He alludes to the example of rock-climbing: there may well be easier ways of getting up mountains than climbing the rock, but people nonetheless buy rock-climbing equipment because they enjoy the challenge of doing it this way. For the engineer and his or her sponsors, the trick is to realise when to build rock-climbing equipment, and when to build an elevator.