Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Humaniteering - What, If Anything, Can Engineers Gain from Working with the Humanities and Sociology?

I'm working on a conference paper around breaking down barriers between disciplines, and (as always) I thought the blog seemed like a good place to think out loud on the subject before getting down to brass tacks in the paper itself. So bear with me: I'm literally thinking out loud here (if we understand "out loud" to mean the clack of my keyboard - my inner pedant feels compelled to point out!).

Anyway, I work with people from a variety of disciplines. I keep meaning to sit down and draw up a diagram of all the people of different disciplines that I've worked with in a research context over my twelve years in academia - either by writing a paper or a grant (successful or otherwise) or co-supervising a PhD student. Perhaps I will, but that's a little bit by-the-by. For now, let me just see if I can rattle off a quick list of my common collaborators outside engineering here at Leeds University:

English/Medical Humanities: Stuart Murray (Augmenting the Body), Amelia de Falco (Augmenting the Body)
Ethics: Chris Megone (PhD supervision), Rob Lawlor (PhD supervision), Kevin Macnish (Tracking People)
Health Sciences: Justin Keen (Tracking People)
Law: Anthea Hucklesby (Tracking People)
Psychology: Mark Mon-Williams (too many links to count!),  Richard Wilkie (ditto)
Rehabilitation Medicine: Bipin Bhakta (MyPAM, iPAM, PhD supervision), Rory O'Connor (MyPAM, PhD supervision), Nick Preston (MyPAM)
Sociology and Social Policy: Angharad Beckett (Together Through Play, LUDI)
Transport Studies: Bryan Matthews (WHISPER)

The list grows longer if you include the engineers, those who work outside Leeds Uni (Andrew Wilson and the cognitive archaeology crew being the most obvious) and the PhD students who have been involved in these various streams. The link to Psychology (motor learning, neuroscience), Health Sciences (health economics and governance), Rehabilitation Medicine (rehabilitating people) and Transport Studies (Assistive Technology for navigation) should be pretty obvious. At the end of the day, these represent the "professional customers" (as distinct from the end users - also an important group, but not one that can easily be captured as an academic discipline!) of the technology that we're building, and engaging with these disciplines is important if we want to be designing the right things, and verifying that our devices actually work (think of the V-model of systems engineering - we want to make sure we're converting needs into technical requirements properly, and properly verifying the end result). Ethics and Law might also seem obvious - we don't want unethical or illegal technology (that's a massive oversimplification, but engineering ethics and the challenge of keeping the law up-to-date with technological development is a big deal at the moment, and you can see why engineering researchers might want to get involved with ethicists to discuss ethical implications of what they do). Why, though, engage with people from English or Sociology, other than a monomaniacal desire to collect cross-disciplinary links? Where does Engineering cross over with these disciplines?

Caveat Lector
As ever, let's have the customary warning: I'm an engineer, and speak from an engineer's perspective (an academic, mechanical engineer's perspective at that), so I can only tell you about my perception of these disciplines. I may be mistaken; I'm certainly speaking from only a partial exposure to these disicplines. With that out the way, let's move forwards.

An Engineering Imagination
Of course, the fact that I named my blog (fully four years ago!) after "The Sociological Imagination" by C. Wright Mills  perhaps suggests some rationale for this interest. In the very first post on this blog, I set out my stall by saying:
"Mills was interested in the relationship between individual and society, and noted that social science wasn't just a matter of getting better data, or analysing it more effectively. Measurements are filtered through a whole set of social norms, and individual assumptions and biases. They colour the way we look at the world, and are often deeply embedded in the methods that we used...  Certainly it applies to engineering: at a fundamental level, what engineers choose to devote their time and energy to (or sell their skills for)... It's not just about what we engineer, but about the way we engineer it: decisions made in developing products and systems have huge implications for their accessibility, use and consequences (bot/h intended and unintended)."

And I revisited it last year in my post on Who Are We Engineering For? noting the challenge of helping engineers to address four key questions:
  1. To what extent should engineers be held accountable for the "selective enabling" of the systems and technologies they devise?
  2. To what extent do engineers have a responsibility to ensure the continuation of the species by, for example, preventing asteroid strikes or ensuring that humanity is able to colonise other planets?
  3. What are the responsibilities of engineers in terms of steering human evolution, if the transhumanist view is correct?
  4. How do we prioritise which problems engineers spend their time solving? Market forces? Equity? Maximising probability of humanity surviving into the posthuman future?
And I concluded that:
"perhaps an Engineering Imagination is a useful tool - being able to look at a system being designed critically, from the outside, to view its relationship with the norms and culture and history it will be deployed in."
That, I think, is the key issue. There are technical things that can be learned from sociology - rigour in analysing qualitative data, for example - but there's something more significant. One of the problems in engineering is a focus on engineering science rather than engineering practice. Learning the technicalities of how to model the behaviour of the world without any thought to what that means in practice. The challenge is that it's easy to say that engineers should be more aware of the implications of their technology - the big question is how do we do that? How do you put a finger on the Engineering Imagination? What does it mean in practice? That, I think, is where the Sociology and Humanities come in.

The Tricky Business of Being Human
Reading up on the Posthuman (I finished Braidotti, by the by - more on that in the next month or so!), makes me a little cagey about using the term human, but it's a convenient shorthand and I don't want to get caught up in lengthy discussions around self-organising systems, the limits of the body, anthropocentrism and humanism. Anyway, the point about the Humanities and Sociology is that they deal with people and their positions within complex social relationships - that link between the personal and the broader "milieu" as the Sociological Imagination puts it. This applies in two ways in engineering: both in terms of stakeholders (users, most obviously, but they can be a multiplicity) and the engineers themselves. So, the stakeholders in an engineering project are neither independent "vitruvian" individuals independent of the world around them, nor an amorphous statistical mass of aggregate data. But it applies to the engineers themselves - who in turn have tastes, background, personalities, histories, families, and find themselves enmeshed in the social processes of an organisation and project management process. They may not all be "engineers" either: a huge range of people are involved in product development, and even the boundaries of what is being developed can be porous. I don't think that's a controversial argument: I have yet to hear anyone make the argument that engineering is a pure, objective  process that leads to a single unquestionably right answer. Most of the challenge in engineering is in mapping complex, messy real world problems into forms that you (as the engineer) have the capability to solve. The "fuzzy front end" and "wicked problems", is a well-recognised problem. And the problem is that the dynamic nature of engineering problems means that these don't just apply at the start of the process. You don't just characterise once and have done with it - you're perpetually having to loop back, adjust expectations, update requirements, work with what you have. It's like user centred design - you don't just ask the user what they want and then go on and make it. You have to keep checking and course-correcting. Sometimes, people don't want what they say they want. Or a product takes so long to develop that it's solving a problem everyone used to have five years ago, but not any more.

This is like Donald Schön's Reflective Practitioner - constantly proposing moves, reflecting on the outcome and reframing the problem in light of the result.  It's this process that I hope that working with Humanities and Sociologists can help with in engineering terms. It's partly about having the concepts and frameworks to process this; partly about methodological tools that help incorporate that into the process. Engineers are people, with all the frailties and limits that implies - Micheal Davis in his essay "Explaining Wrongdoing" talks of microscopic vision (a concept that my one-time PhD Student Helen Morley highlighted to me): that expertise encourages a narrow focus (knowing more and more about less and less...) at the expense of a broader view of consequences. This dovetails beautifully with the notion of selective enabling and design exclusion, but also the Collingridge Dilemma: the potential difficulty in foreseeing the side effects of new technologies until it's too late.

Which isn't to say that we should be abandoning rational judgement and analysis - just that we need to make sure that we're framing problems correctly, and aware of the limits of what we bring to the analysis. I don't know how all this is going to help - that's one for the humaniteers (as I like to call them) and sociologists to answer.

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