Drawing a Line or Walking the Other Way?

Multiple times this semester, Oscar Wilde’s stance on morality has come up, “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.”  I agree with his position to a point.  We must have clear moral standards or we will have none at all.

Yet in my mind, the idea of a moral line is scary.  It is far too easy to creep up to that line, maybe even to peer across to the other side.  While I may remain in “good moral standing” according to my line, I am too close to temptation for comfort.  Standing next to the line, I can easily fall across or perhaps even be pushed over.  I think the metaphor of a moral line can encourage an attitude in which I ask myself, “How close can I get?  How far can I go without doing wrong?”  If this is the wrong attitude, what is the solution?

One solution might be to draw my practical moral line “a long way back,” metaphorically,  from my true moral line.  While this solution might keep me from wrong, it doesn’t fix the underlying attitude.  A better solution is to flee from the evil, or more plainly, just to walk the other way.  Pursue good behavior.  As the book Yanna reviewed advised, cultivate good moral habits.  In short, the best path to take is the one that leads away from the line between right and wrong, the one that scraps the whole idea of trying to get away with as much as I can without doing wrong.  In order to walk the other way, we need to hone our moral lens.  To put it another way, we must strive to intentionally deepen our worldview, rather than passively letting the world shape us.

I’ve found that reading good and varied books is one excellent way of shaping my worldview.  We’ve been given many great suggestions of books to read in this class that can expand our thinking on ethics and our interaction with the world as scientists.  One particularly formative book for me was The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View by Walsh and Middleton.  Obviously written from a Christian perspective, this book won’t appeal to everyone.  However, the authors present a wonderful resource at the end that I believe may be useful to us all. They provide recommended reading lists for people working in nearly every academic discipline.  I would like to highlight two of the books they recommend for engineers.

Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher – Considered by some among the top 100 most influential books of the past century, Schumacher artfully shows how economics, science, and technology can be carried out in ways that respect people – realizing that they matter.  It really opened my eyes to the alternatives that exist to our current economic system that generally disregards people.

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul – (I have to admit that I make it through all of this one.  It is not a light read.)  Ellul calls into question modern society’s deference to science and technology as ultimate things.  He points out how easily humans become subservient to technology rather than using it within proper bounds.  He helps to raise, and maybe answer, the question of whether we should do things in science and technology just because we can.  Is our humanity being sacrificed at the altar of technology?

Big Dig Video Link

For anyone interested, here is a link where the recording of the Big Dig talk from my latest blog can be downloaded.  It will download as an executable file to watch.  Of particular interest to our discussion of the interaction of the public and engineering is the first section on history (5:00 to 23:00) and the personal observations (1:05:00 to 1:07:00).


Engineers in Politics

Mark’s latest post Spock for President 2016 got me thinking about engineers in politics.  Commenting on his post, I ran across a blog entitled, The Little Blue Engineer by John Bachner, the executive director of the American Society of Foundation Engineers (ASFE). The story in this blog was so fascinating given our discussion about engineers, the public, and now public policy that I wanted to share it more widely.  Enjoy!

Street Science at the Big Dig

A couple of weeks ago, the geotechnical program was privileged to have Dr. John Christian speak at Virginia Tech on the subject of Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” project.  Dr. Christian is a geotechnical consultant and former MIT professor who has spent most of his career in the Boston area.  He is currently the chair of the civil engineering section of the National Academy of Engineering.

The Big Dig (more properly the Central Artery/Tunnel Project) was an extremely large and complicated highway project that expanded the freeway system in Boston and at the same time put much of the existing freeway underground.  There were many interesting geotechnical issues on the project in addition to the planning nightmare of doing major construction in an old and very congested city.  The project, however, became most famous for it’s ever-expanding budget and schedule.  When it started in 1991, it was supposed to cost $2.8 billion ($6 billion in 2006 dollars).  The project finished in 2007 at a cost of almost $15 billion. 

Dr. Christian’s involvement came near the end of the project as an independent reviewer for the NAE and later as a private consultant.  He spoke mostly about the history and project management lessons learned from the Big Dig.  While he cleared up many of the misconceptions about the project, Dr. Christian also pointed out a number of ways in which the project teams did their jobs poorly eventually costing the taxpayers money.

One of the fascinating aspects was the influence of state politics and public interaction on the project.  Construction began under a “hands-on” governor who placed a local man in charge of oversight.  Whenever a new phase of the project was about to start, this man would meet with residents in the neighborhood to discuss the next steps and how it would affect the traffic patterns, etc.  Invariably, the residents would bring up issues that the engineers had not thought of, and the street-level plans would have to be revised.  These simple interactions and adjustments kept the community engaged with the project.   The community provided street knowledge that the engineering team could not hope to have on their own.

Midway through the Big Dig, the state administration changed and began to take a very “hands-off” approach.  The community meetings ended.  Instead, as scrutiny of the project grew, a “bunker mentality” developed, as Christian put it.  The project team was not allowed to say anything or communicate effectively with the public.  According to Christian, poor communication between the engineers and the public was one of the major problems that occurred with the management of the Big Dig.

It is fascinating to see how the ‘success’ of a project can come down to things like communication and public perception.