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The Metaphysical Similarity Between Authoritarians and Engineers


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At the Baffler, David A. Banks reflects on the largely hidden roll of the engineering professions in upholding the dominant social order. As Banks notes, engineers tend to think of themselves as engaged in ethically neutral activities that simply follow plans or specs devised by others. But this very insistence on neutrality blinds them to the authoritarian tendencies of their profession. Here’s an excerpt from Banks’s piece:

What’s more concerning though, is the metaphysical similarity between authoritarians and engineers. They share an aversion to ideas, phenomena, and even people who do not fit into neat categories. It is this desire for a well-ordered world that comports so nicely with fundamentalist tendencies. Things work, be they bridges or societies, when all the components are predictable and behave the way they are told. Demanding recognition outside given categories, radically changing the environment a system must work in, and dismantling long-held practices and theories are equally frustrating for the aspiring dictator and the aspiring engineer. It is that tradeoff between latitude and freedom, as Kelly puts it, that is at the center of the authoritarian–neoliberal–engineer Venn diagram.

What Gambetta and Hertog are not clear on, is whether engineering attracts authoritarians or makes them. Of course, the answer is probably a mix of individuals’ self-selection and the cultivation of the qualities that lead to the sorting in the first place. But if I had to choose which factor was stronger, my money is on the latter: that there is something about engineering pedagogy that encourages authoritarianism.