Engineering turns human hands to the betterment of humankind. As I pointed out in an earlier installment, the IEEE defines engineering as “promoting the development and application of electrotechnology and allied sciences for the benefit of humanity, the advancement of the profession, and the well-being of our members.” Let’s focus on the three key words benefit, advancement, and well-being. We can distinguish the second, advancement, as supporting the other two.
Most engineers link benefit to some economically quantifiable measure at a societal level. The term well-being qualifies the notion of benefit and brings it to a personal level. I’d like to call your attention to those contributions of engineering that increase not only utility and durability, but which touch on human delight and quality of life. As Eiffel is alleged to have quipped, “Must it be assumed that because we are engineers, beauty is not our concern?”
Every now and then, some author challenges the complacency of the common utilitarian mindset of engineering with arguments to the effect that beauty or one of its cousins is just an indirect means to the more standard measures of quality of life or well-being. The research suggests otherwise, at least on a short-term basis. On a long-term basis the results are less clear. (Raudsepp-Hearne et al., “Untangling the Environmental Paradox: Why Is Human Well-Being Increasing as Ecosystems Degrade?” BioScience 60(8), Sept. 2010, pp. 576—589). If we’re going to blather about beauty, we must do so on its own terms. Perhaps beauty, then, is a way to open our eyes to more universal human needs than standard economics afford, or to help us ponder the longer term.
What is beauty? The term usually evokes feelings and thoughts of something society creates for its own sake rather than for the sake of, say, utility or human well-being. This is particularly so for engineers who articulate beauty at the intersection of engineering and societal concerns: a beautiful bridge, a beautiful jetliner, or the beauty made possible by the engineering behind an opera house in Sydney or Oslo. Christopher Alexander, who arguably can be viewed as having engineering genes among his architectural ones, argues that this elusive thing we sometimes refer to by the vulgar term “beauty” reaches even beyond the societal and human dimension as part of a broader healing process in the universe. His perspective leads us beyond the textbook definition of engineering, which regards human well-being, into the very realms of nature and creation themselves. Does a built system have a good existence (well-being), or “enjoy” beauty, or does it (or we? who?) just benefit from it? What are the engineering values behind the Sydney Opera House, and why did Utzon care to express those in his work?
Great engineering embraces a moral imperative that stretches beyond vulgar utility to universally human, or universally alive, forms and practices. That they don’t fit an economic model doesn’t mean that they are without value. A beautiful circuit design has value for its own sake, and beautiful code can more easily be comprehended and extended to increase its value. It’s not always that business imperative that leads you in the “right” direction: what are the code formatting rules that support your corporate ROI? But focusing on beauty for its own sake may have payoff — at least in casuistic value, certainly in psychological value, and perhaps in economic value.
Appreciate and practice beauty in the world. But also strive to put it into what you make. It matters, and you’ll feel better about yourself.