In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about!

Temptations of Technocracy in the Century of Engineering

Monday, January 11, 2021

Author: Sheila Jasanoff


Chemistry, physics, and biology took turns shaping the frontiers of industrial development from the mid-19th century onward, but this century’s future belongs squarely to engineering.

This is an era of unprecedented convergence across multiple fields, propelled by breakthroughs in nano-, bio-, information, and cognitive sciences and technologies (Roco and Bainbridge 2003). In all of these areas, knowledge is moving with lightning speed from bench to applications, blurring familiar distinctions between science and technology.

To illustrate, DDT languished on the shelves of synthetic chemistry for 70 years before its rediscovery as an insecticide in 1939 won patents and in 1948 a Nobel Prize. Knowledge of its harmful environmental effects came decades later (Carson 1962). In contrast, for CRISPR-Cas9 and genome editing, the transit from lab to applications to a Nobel took only a tenth as long (2012–20), and already scientists are talking about using gene editing to redirect evolution (Doudna and Sternberg 2017).

The Age of Engineering: Evidence and Implications

Science, more than ever, is attuned to meeting human needs, and that shift also favors engineering. Where else should one look for solutions to grand planetary challenges such as the existential threats of climate change, pandemics, famine and food insecurity? The age of pure science, if there ever was one, is past; the age of engineering lies enticingly ahead.

In America, a country wedded to pragmatism and problem solving, the rise of engineering should bode well. The world is awash in problems, and if technological ingenuity holds answers, then America’s fix-it, entrepreneurial spirit should be enjoying a field day. And indeed,

  • College students today seem more keen on starting new businesses based on technological innovation than pursuing careers in basic research.
  • Visions like the Fourth Industrial Revolution promise to create engineering-based commodities, services, and therapies to improve billions of lives and create wealth for all.
  • Silicon Valley remains the epicenter of these starry-eyed dreams.
  • The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative says it supports “science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of this century.” (Emphasis added here and in the next two items.)
  • Google wants to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
  • The Singularity University wishes to leverage “exponential technologies … to solve humanity’s biggest challenges.”

But if engineering has emerged as the powerhouse of progress in the 21st century, with power comes responsibility. Speed, scale, and pervasiveness create untold opportunities for human advancement, but they also open the door to making big mistakes with little or no accountability. The world does not need heedless technocracy, bringing more Bhopals, more Fukushimas, or misguided one-child policies based on physical science models that did not consider human behavior (Greenhalgh 2008).

Will engineering rise to the challenges of responsible innovation? That depends on how it avoids three great temptations that come with the prospect of remaking the world as we know it.

Temptation: Technology Leads Society

The first temptation is to assume that technology leads society, while ethics and law lag behind, timid handmaidens that hold back progress or arrive too late to the project of making lives better. This belief encourages an unthinking and unreflective extension of the power of engineering. It assumes that the new is good in itself and disruption the path of virtue.

Among engineers, it is common to think that unwillingness to embrace novelty is a problem of bias and ignorance. Reluctance and ambivalence then become barriers to overcome, so that society falls in line with the next big thing, recognizing its merits.

But there may be good reasons for holding back.

We are learning the hard way that the internet was not the instrument of democratization and personal liberation that its pioneers imagined in the 1990s. If law and ethics, and ordinary people’s values, had been insistently at the table when the internet’s designers first went to work, would there be more intelligent forms of connectivity than in today’s world of shredded privacy, rampant misinformation, destructive bullying, silos of extremism, and vast wealth concentrated in the hands of very few? It is hard to know for certain, but giving information technology free rein clearly did not realize the designers’ early utopian fantasies.

Speed, scale, and pervasiveness create opportunities for human advancement, but also open the door to big mistakes with little or no accountability.

Temptation: The Mt. Everest Syndrome

The second temptation is the Mt. Everest syndrome: if engineers can do something, then, as with climbing the highest mountain (“because it’s there”), they should do it. This way of thinking may yield short-term benefits for some, but it does not ensure that innovation will serve the needs of the wider human community.

Deeply problematic uses are already coupled with technologies of tracking and identification, such as facial recognition software. The introduction of the gig economy, enabled by information technologies, has put workers at risk and threatens grave destabilization in the labor market. Even wildly popular technologies, such as blockbuster drugs, Microsoft Word, and smartphones, are seen today as possible hindrances to further innovation, their very success having produced the conditions for premature lock-ins. Engineering, as these cases show, rules lives, and like any instrument of power it needs to be governed.

As an object of governance, engineering should be seen as more like constitution making, a slow process that calls for inclusion and deliberation, and less like extreme sports, where the race is to the swiftest and the one with the best equipment and most financial backing invariably wins.

Engineering should be
a slow process of inclusion and deliberation,
not like an extreme sport, where the one with the best equipment and most financial backing invariably wins.

Temptation: “Value-Free” Engineering

The third temptation is to insist that engineering design is value-free and merely a tool for solving problems. This conviction avoids reflection on how and why engineers choose the problems they wish to solve. It marches hand in hand with the perception that technological failures are due to misuse or abuse.

According to this way of thinking,

  • There was nothing wrong with nuclear power. It was mismanagement and human error that led to events like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
  • There is nothing the matter with chemicals or plastics. It’s only unfortunate that humans overuse them.
  • Genetic engineering and editing are merely means of correcting nature’s errors. Regulation can ensure that they will be safely used.

These simple but widely cited examples ensure that mistakes and disasters are seen as unintended consequences. Whatever went wrong, it was not the designers’ fault. The problems arose downstream.

Even more perniciously, some mistakes are seen as inevitable: the few must suffer for the greater good. Never mind that the burden of error often falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable, nor that some projects of progress, such as the search for immortality, chiefly reflect the imaginations of the rich.

Resisting Temptation

2020 is a metaphor for perfect vision, and a bridge between two half-centuries of this publication. For rapidly converging technologies to fulfill the dream of serving humanity well, one hopes the next 50 years will see more serious engagement between engineering and its ethical, legal, and social analysts.

Which of us would not wish to design a better world? To realize that vision in the decades ahead, engineers will have to resist the temptations of mistaking innovation for progress, equating can with should, and treating responsibility as if it’s someone else’s business.


Carson R. 1962. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Doudna JA, Sternberg SH. 2017. A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Greenhalgh S. 2008. Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China. Oakland: University of California Press.

Roco MC, Bainbridge WS. 2003. Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance. Washington: National Science Foundation.

About the Author:Sheila Jasanoff is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.