In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 18, 2019 Volume 49 Issue 4

Op-ed: Persistent Challenges in the Information Age

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Author: Samuel C. Florman

I am extremely pleased to see that as of the spring 2019 issue of The Bridge a new EES Interface column has been added. This collaboration with the NAE’s Center for Engineering Ethics and Society is an excellent development. It offers thoughtful perspectives, sometimes slightly different from what I have in mind, but certainly worthy of serious consideration.

In the summer 2019 issue Rosalyn W. Berne, addressing the topic of resilience engineering, asks probing questions about the well-being of all citizens in the face of technological challenges. She suggests that “there is a case to be made that social inequality should be considered in engineering design and development,” and she brings to our attention the inequalities that might evolve in such catastrophic situations as hurricanes and electric blackouts. Certainly we are all in favor of engineering efforts to protect the populace from disaster, and I suppose that “needy” people might require extra attention. But the definition of need may vary. Recently I was in a widespread electric blackout in New York City and discovered that, with elevators not working, tenants on the upper floors—the most expensive apartments—suffered more deprivations than those on the lower. Sometimes luxury neighborhoods require more protection in floods or fires than others, or the reverse. There are many interesting ethical/-technological problems to consider.

At this particular moment, however, I find myself, along with many citizens—and many engineers—absorbed by a most insidious, widespread source of calamity: our electronic world of communication. From our old friend the telephone to the most dazzling features of the internet, troubles are manifold. As a basic challenge to everyday life, many of the telephone calls that come into my home, and the homes of my neighbors, are criminal acts—attempts to mislead, cheat, or steal. And at our offices, that part of life we call the business world, the situation is even worse.

I’m a civil engineer, retired after a relatively wholesome career in the construction industry, and I cannot believe what I encounter and what I am told by others about the challenges. There have always been hazards in our industry—economic and even, on rare occasion, physical. But nothing as threatening as the world described in an article in Engineering News-Record titled “A Match Made in Cyber Hell” (May 8, 2019). “Cybercriminals,” I learn, “find the construction world a rich phishing ground with fat prey and soft targets.” And from ENR’s annual conference this past June I learn that “Malicious hacking and ransomware are growing threats to the industry.”

Beyond thievery in industry, on the front page of the New York Times (August 23, 2019) I find a featured article: “Hackers Cripple Dozens of Cities, Hunting Ransom.” Incredible: municipalities find that their records have been attacked and they are forced to pay ransom to criminals in order to maintain order.

Well, I’m an engineer. How ought I react? An answer comes in a recent issue of The Bent: an article titled “Digital Resilience: What You Can Do—Now.” The author assumes a world full of villains and cheerfully advises me to stand up to them, outthink them, “choose not to be socially engineered.” The tricksters are here to stay, and don’t assume you can make them more moral or find others to protect you. Be clever, be alert. “Good luck in your digital pursuits. And change your password—often!”

Oh no, I was born too long ago to outmanipulate today’s clever digital crooks. And I don’t want to be bothered changing my passwords over and over again. In desperation, what inevitably comes to mind? Legal action, of course. Protective legislation. Surprisingly, I haven’t found this concept widely recommended.

Robert W. Lucky, whose “Reflections” column has graced the pages of IEEE Spectrum for close to 40 splendid years, tells the story (November 2019): “No one can argue in favor of unethical engineering, but I do have some concern about who decides what is ethical and how those decisions will be used to control technological evolution.” Mr. Lucky assures us that “having tough problems is good for engineers.” But he gives no assurances about government and the future. I am certainly no wizard; but I am inclined to bring government into the picture sooner rather than later.

For The Bridge issue of fall 2002, I contributed an article entitled “Engineering Ethics: The Conversation without End.” I pointed out the obvious, that the laws had been changing, and that the very definition of ethical engineering was undergoing change. In the not too distant past, codes of engineering ethics resembled ancient guild rules: Don’t compete for commissions on the basis of price. Don’t advertise. Don’t review a fellow engineer’s work without first getting clearance, etc. Such admonitions might forever be considered professional protocol or professional decorum. But in the 1970s, society, acting through the US Department of Justice and the courts, declared such restrictions to be violations of antitrust laws. This was quite a change, for engineers especially. But change had always been in the air.

In the earliest days of the American republic—the “good old days”—the rule of the land was caveat -emptor, buyer beware. Robber barons single-mindedly pursued profit, and a swarm of rapscallions, exemplified by snake-oil salesmen, plied their wares with little or no restraint. However, as time passed, public will decreed change, and revised interpretations of the Constitution followed. Steamboat ferries had been exploding with terrible casualties, and in 1852, despite objections by powerful senators, Congress enacted a law requiring inspection of the perilous boilers. Railroads had been spreading across the nation, ghastly accidents occurred, then multiplied, and in the 1880s railroad -safety regulations were introduced. Objections were raised to illness caused by food and medications; between 1880 and 1906, 103 bills were introduced proposing control of interstate traffic in food and drugs, until finally the Pure Food and Drugs Act was passed and signed by Theodore Roosevelt. The Federal Trade Commission Act was passed in 1914, the Federal Power Commission founded in 1920, the Federal Communications Commission established in 1934, and the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1938. In the 1960s the courts commenced imposing “strict liability” for injuries caused by dangerous products whether or not negligence was involved. As for industrial pollution, its problems have not been resolved, but it has become a subject of legal controversy rather than mainly a matter of ethical integrity as it once was. Finally, starting in 1970, after the first celebration of Earth Day, the floodgates were opened. A proliferation of laws, and the agencies to administer them, was a manifestation of the public will.

“The problems of the Information Age—who should control the Internet and how—are still too new for us to predict their resolution.” That is what I wrote 17 years ago, pronouncing the obvious.

As I write today, Mark Zuckerberg, cofounder and leader of Facebook, has vigorously defended his company’s decision not to fact-check the political ads it accepts and displays, even though the ads are placed on the social network by politicians. At the same time I read in the New York Times that the two sides, Facebook and the publishing industry, “have formed an uneasy truce.” In clarification, Mr. Zuckerberg explains: “If a publisher posts misinformation it will no longer appear in the product.” Oh? I am certainly not the only innocent who doesn’t understand.

As of November 2019 I have no idea if legislation is being considered, although Mr. Zuckerberg has held meetings with people in Washington. And I have no idea who will be active in this arena in the years ahead—financially, politically, technologically, legally. There are the four giant big tech organizations—and many business groups opposed to them. There are political groups, labor groups, lawyers, academics, religious and philosophical groups. And should I add military groups? In many parts of the world they are political giants. Happily, not here, except for technical contributions.

Well, how about engineers? Of course. Clearly there is an ever-increasing need for engineers and scientists to participate in conferences, debates, and activities at the highest levels.

Margaret O’Mara, professor of history, is the author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America; an essay adapted from the book appeared in the New York Times (July 6, 2019). “Silicon Valley’s story,” she writes, “isn’t just one of freewheeling entrepreneurs and far-sighted technologists. It’s about laws and regulations that gave the men and women of the tech world remarkable freedom to define what the future might look like…. The tech world likes to look forward, not backward. But reckoning with its past is essential in mapping out where it goes.”

Just as I reach the end of my meandering speculations, I come across, of all things, the “Tech and Design Issue” of the New York Times Magazine (November 17, 2019). On the cover is the statement: “So the internet didn’t turn out the way we hoped.”

Looking through this wide-reaching compendium I am particularly attracted to the message contributed by Nicole Wong, US deputy chief technology officer during the Obama administration. “Technology regulation is coming,” she states. “Indeed, regulation is here already, and we should expect more of it…. One thing we will need to see is training people to be bilingual in policymaking and technology—placing smart, talented, technically sophisticated people into government.”

What the future holds is far from clear. The entrepreneurs and the politicians are making themselves heard. We engineers don’t want to remain silent. In the spirit of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi: “To business now, and sharp’s the word.”

About the Author:Samuel C. Florman (NAE) is the retired chair of Kreisler Borg Florman General Construction Company and author of The Existential Pleasures of Engineering and other books.