In my mind, the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—like other technological disasters, such as those involving the Three Mile Island nuclear powerplant and the space shuttle Challenger—represents a management failure, more so than an engineering failure. Anything implying that the engineering profession as a whole somehow bears the blame for these regrettable events puzzles me, including ENR’s editorial on the subject in its June 7, 2010, issue. To understand why, it is worth noting what some others have said about the nature of engineering practice and its place in our culture.
Steven Goldman, a professor of the humanities at Lehigh University, has described the “social captivity” of engineering. Technology and innovation generally are dominated by market-driven value judgments, rather than technical knowledge. Even when decision-makers are engineers by training, their choices generally are governed by organizational priorities—not necessarily the capabilities and limitations of those who work under them. As a result, engineering tends to be instrumental as non-engineers selectively exploit it to achieve their own objectives.