The Philosophy of an Internet Age Engineer

The digital age has revolutionized countless aspects of our lives in the last decades, and this trend is only projected to continue further into the future. It is critical that society prepare itself to adapt to these radical changes in our lifestyle, but more importantly it is key to our success that the conceptualization of the engineer adapt equally as drastically as society. The nature of the engineer’s job has shifted onto three main pillars. The first and most altered by the digital age, is the resurgence of the renaissance man. All other pillars are subject to this restructuring. The rise of the internet and the endless amount of information at our fingertips has allowed us to return to the versatility of the renaissance era. We are no longer restrained to one rigid concept of a career. The second pillar focuses on the key philosophy of leadership that is necessary for the contemporary engineer. With the rise of communication and the scales of our projects growing ever larger, the necessity of order and leadership has become quintessential to the definition of the modern engineer. Unlike the renaissance man of the past, we can no longer rely simply on our own abilities and we must be able to organize all of our collective abilities for a larger cause. The final pillar is less connected to the individual as it is connected to society at large. It is the necessity of producing a sustainable society. It is imperative that we alter our views of design and engineering to focus on the sustainability of our production, regardless of whether you work directly in sustainability or not. It is a responsibility of the entire human race to guarantee we put our best efforts into creating not only a better world for ourselves, but a world that can be lived in for countless future generations.

“Vision without execution is hallucination, [...] skill without imagination is barren”- Walter Isaacson

Growing up there was one question that always bothered me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I had different individual answers to that question over the years, but that was the answer people wanted to hear. The answer that was truly at my core was that I wanted to be, well to put it simply, everything. I wanted to experience the world, be an artist, be a creator, an inventor, or even as I grew older, a philosopher, or writer, or even president. I wanted my dreams to all be possible. I knew that I was a smart kid and no matter what I dedicated myself to, I could probably find a job and be moderately successful, but it seemed as if I was bargaining with a genie. Why was I only allowed to be granted one wish, when all of my wishes seemed to be at just an arms length away. As I matured, I began to accept what I believed to be reality, and chose a career choice which I thought was safe and would bring me the lifestyle I expected, but overtime I grew to realize that society wasn’t exactly what my parents and teachers told me it was. I like to believe that we live in the resurgence of the renaissance, and the force behind this resurgence was the internet. There is a quote from a video I really liked that went along these lines: “We can’t only be whatever we want to be, we can be everything we want to be”. This quote was in reference to the success of Donald Glover in his long list of various career choices. Donald Glover may not be the best example for an engineer like me though, so I referred to one of my childhood heroes, Leonardo Da Vinci. By all historical accounts, people considered Leonardo Da Vinci a genius, but what was the root of his genius? It was none other than his ability to combine all of the artistic and mathematical knowledge he had into a perfect and beautiful product, or as Steve Jobs put it, “he saw beauty in both art and engineering, and his ability to combine them was what made him a genius”. I believe that for an engineer to be truly successful in the future, he has to be equally skilled in math as he is in the arts. These ideas aren’t constrained to the present or the renaissance though. As Voltaire believed, our mind is a garden that we must cultivate, we must nurture what is important to us, and having a garden of just lilies, isn’t a garden at all.

“To be alone is not to exist”- Albert Camus

The revolutionary ideals of the enlightenment era serve as a model for our society and as engineers. The values of amazing minds like Voltaire and Kant are truly key to understanding what it means to be an engineer and most importantly, an ethical leader. The enlightenment belief that the authority should be founded upon reason and ethics is a perfect foundation for a leader in engineering. Every engineer should be their own personal philosopher king. A personal belief of mine is that a silent genius is more useless than a boisterous fool. It is our responsibility to be able to communicate our ideas and push them towards success, simply being smart is no longer enough. We live in a dynamic society that relies on our collaboration with others, and that means that our leadership and communication skills must be on par with our vast knowledge. Voltaire once wrote that, “opinion rules the world, but in the long run it is the philosopher who shapes opinion”, and I believe that in the modern era we can all attempt to become the philosophers and engineers that shape the future of the world. This is no easy task to be fair and I think that not all may be up for it, but there is one commonality amongst all who may. It is a thirst for something greater than oneself, a deep heartfelt desire for none other than wisdom. Being satisfied with the status quo is the bane of true success and this should be taught to all. We can’t only be better than others, we need to work towards being better than ourselves. To be just an engineer, again, isn’t enough.

“[Sustainability] is a challenge that engineers are ready to tackle in partnership with all other disciplines”- Peter Head

As engineers, and forerunners in our society’s technology, a burden falls upon our shoulders. It is the burden of sustainability. Generations of the past have long neglected our impact on the world we live in, but every second that passes, it is even more important that we restructure our society with a vision of  a sustainable future. This isn’t a task that a single person, company, or even country, can take on its own. It falls on us to not only pick up the mess of the past, but to assemble the pieces into something that propagates far into the future. In a research publication by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), there is an analogy I quite like about the world: “we do not yet know how heavy a load is safe but we know, in principle that too heavy a load will cause the ship to sink”. To prevent our metaphorical ship from sinking, we need to begin internalizing this vision in every aspect. No matter how large or small the project, I think a great engineer should be conscious of the impact they are making on the world. Sometimes designing something small may not seem to have an impact in the vast ocean of our mistakes, but it is every plastic bag, unfiltered exhaust tower, and inefficient energy usage that adds up to produce the society we are currently living in. We can’t point our fingers at anyone except ourselves, and thus we must accept that we need to keep our designs with the world in our mind as much as ourselves. As engineers, we create the infrastructure of our society. Infrastructure is the backbone of any development and it has massive impacts on the long run. There is no doubt that we will have to restructure our society if we want to continue further into the future. By creating new and efficient infrastructure, we can help work towards a society that our grandchildren will be able to play in. To partially take the burden off our shoulders, I’d like to clarify that it is not just us engineers that need to change. As society changes around this new threat to our existence, we will need to collaborate with all other types of workers to be able to succeed. This emphasizes even further our need for versatility. We must be able to work together, not as engineers, or politicians, or as artists, but rather as humans.

“He who wishes one day to fly, must first learn to stand and to walk and to run and to climb and to dance-- one does not fly into flying!”- Friedrich Nietzsche

These shifts in our society will not be easy; they will be difficult and there will be many people that will get left behind, but I think as time goes on, society as a whole will catch up to what the future needs to succeed. To be a successful engineer is no longer the same thing as what some people would have called engineers in the past. We must become more like renaissance men, and we must cultivate the garden of our minds in respect to this shift. We need to understand that the lone wolf is a concept that died when the internet was born. In a way, we must act like the phoenix- we must be reborn from the remains of the past and improve on our mistakes. We should pursue to achieve things that are greater than our individual lives, yet we shouldn't abandon our success for others because the world’s success is dependent on everyone's improvement. We should all attempt to be the revolutionaries and visionary leaders of our generation, because I think that we can all become them, due to the internet.

Maurizio Marcotulli