What happens when engineers run the world?

The global tech over.

Engineers assembling Curiosity, the current Mars Rover. Photograph: Spencer Lowell

Who Owns the Future?
Jaron Lanier
Allen Lane, 384pp, £20

To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist
Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane, 432pp, £20

On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines plane wearing customised underpants stuffed with explosives. As Flight 253 approached Detroit, he tried to blow himself up – along with nearly 300 other passengers and crew. It was the biggest flop in the recent history of Islamic terrorism. The baby-faced bomber succeeded only in setting his trousers on fire and burning his legs, before getting doused by fire extinguishers and being sat on by some intrepid souls in economy class. Not even Ryanair dishes out that kind of treatment.

Landed with a huge story, the papers dutifully cranked out their journey-to-jihad profiles and searched for a motivation. Abdulmutallab had been a pious introvert. “Sex torment drove him nuts,” suggested the New York Post (“The bomb wasn’t the only thing burning in his pants”). The most intriguing explanation, though, came from a couple of academics. Whatever else could be said about the failed terrorist, he’d recently graduated from University College London with a degree in mechanical engineering. That, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog wrote, slotted him into a gruesome tradition summarised in the title of their paper: “Why Are There So Many Engineers Among Islamic Radicals?”

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohamed Atta, 9/11’s mastermind and one of its ringleaders, were both engineers. Imam Samudra, the plotter of the Bali nightclub bombings of 2002, was an engineer. Kafeel Ahmed, who in 2007 charged a Jeep into Glasgow airport, had an MPhil in aeronautical engineering.

Analysing the backgrounds of 178 jihadis, Gambetta and Hertog found that 44 per cent had studied for an engineering degree – while engineers comprised an average of only 3.5 per cent of the male workforce in their home countries. Most of the standard explanations for this vast over-representation are no doubt familiar to diligent New Statesman readers: graduate employment across the Middle East is hard to find and, as Jean-Paul Marat could tell you, frustrated ambition is often a catalyst for radicalisation.

While that accounted for the preponderance of degree-holding jihadis, it did not explain the dominance of engineering. For that, the social scientists turned to what they called the “engineering mindset”. “Engineering is a subject in which individuals with a dislike for ambiguity might feel comfortable,” they wrote. According to a US survey, engineers were “less adept at dealing with the confusing causality of the social and political realms and . . . inclined to think that societies should operate in an orderly way akin to well-functioning machines”.

Had the sociologists panned their lens across from the Middle East to the west coast of the US, they would have found that same mindset not confined to the political margins but flourishing in the commercial mainstream. If this age belongs to any profession, it surely belongs to the engineer – not in the term’s historical sense of builders of dams and railways but in its new sense of makers of technology and software. Look at the Forbes billionaire list, published in March: of the ten richest people in the world, three – Carlos Slim, Bill Gates and Larry Ellison – made their riches through engineering. Run through the companies that have become household names in the past 20 years and they are, at root, engineering companies: Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter.

Three things have converged to make this batch of engineers more prominent than those of previous generations who worked at such venerable giants as BAE or General Electric. First, rather than making bits of public infrastructure – power plants and bridges, for example – this new lot are in your personal space. They produce the iPhone in your pocket or the social media sites you check over lunch.

Second, the IT revolution has triggered a wave of inventions and innovations. Look out for Google Glass spectacles that enable you to browse the web and film what you’re watching. Wearers have already been given a nickname: “Glassholes”.

Finally, the politicians and the commentariat, as well as business executives, increasingly defer to the needs of those in engineering. Think of how David Cameron cosies up to Google or consider how the coalition government has cut public funding for all university teaching except in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

Precedents exist for each of these factors. Didn’t Harold Wilson get excited about the “white heat of technology”? But add the three together and lob in the propulsive force of venture capital and you have a world in which books emerge with titles such as What Would Google Do?and in which the untimely death of the chief executive of a consumer electronics company, Apple’s Steve Jobs, prompts the kind of mass grief that greeted the assassination of John Lennon. A world in which engineers – and the culture described by Gambetta and Hertog – reign supreme.

It’s the implications of this new world that Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier discuss in their new books. Where public debate still struggles to get over the giddiness brought on by all this novelty (look, youngsters in Tahrir Square on Twitter!), both writers want to draw out some of its shortcomings. Yet neither is hard-wired to technophobia. The 28-year-old Morozov confesses that he used to be a digital evangelist: “I remember perfectly the thrill that comes from thinking that the lessons of Wikipedia . . . could and should be applied absolutely everywhere.”

As for Lanier, he was one of the pioneers of virtual reality and now works for Microsoft. He is that odd combination, a member of Silicon Valley’s “1 per cent” and a philosopher who has written widely about the limits of technology. He is also the owner of the world’s biggest flute.

In To Save Everything, Click Here, Morozov describes how responsibility for solving social problems has been arrogated by engineers at Google and other private-sector businesses. Need to recycle more? Get BinCam, which photographs your bin’s contents and sends the image to freelancers hired through Amazon. They analyse just how wasteful you’ve been and then stick the results on – you’ve guessed it – your Facebook page for all your friends to see. It doesn’t stop there. Because your pals also have BinCams, soon an entire social network is competing to see who’s the greenest. Result: Gaia is saved. Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and BinCam!

This is a prime example of “solutionism”, as Morozov calls it: the notion that a messy problem sprawling across morality and politics can be resolved with just a little engineering ingenuity and the latest technology. Solutionism is the natural extension of Gambetta’s and Hertog’s observation about the engineer’s desire to turn society into a well functioning machine – and it’s everywhere.

After a gunman killed 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, a residents’ group named the Sandy Hook Promise sprang up, looking for new technologies to increase gun safety. Breakthrough ideas would be put in front of “venture capitalists and angel investors”. The intentions are surely sincere but I can’t help feeling that the most straightforward way to reduce gun crime would be to reduce gun ownership. For the Sandy Hook Promise, however, that smells too much like politics.

Then there’s “big data”, the concept, fashionable across Washington and now Whitehall, that any problem – from underperforming pupils to failing hospitals – can be solved by collecting some tightly focused data, crunching it and making tweaks such as shifting pupils or rejigging nurses’ shifts, rather than dealing with bigger issues, such as the poverty of the catchment area or the spending cuts being made by your local trust.

This is an approach that focuses narrowly on “what works” without ever troubling to ask: “Works for whom?” Its watchword is “smart”, which can easily be appreciated, not “right”, which can’t. Putting trust in highly educated technocrats, it is naturally less interested in public debate. Amplify this by the imperative to deliver financial returns and the result is often easy to admire – and yet to dislike.

In 2010, Google’s chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, explained how his company “is really an engineering company, with all these computer scientists that see the world as a completely broken place”. Friedrich Hayek would have recognised this sentiment. Over 60 years ago, he observed that the best engineers eventually “develop a passion for imposing on society the order which they are unable to detect by the means with which they are familiar”.

In his first book, The Net Delusion, Morozov rubbished the idea that totalitarian regimes could be toppled by “slacktivists”: Iranian hipsters retweeting badinage about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, say. It was a subtle argument in which both the Belarusian and his opponents splashed around a little too much black and white but Morozov captured how protesters in the internet age often place trust in tools such as blogs and twitter simply because they’re the closest to hand.

The new book develops that picture, suggesting that a cadre of technologists and policymakers is now so depoliticised that it naturally reaches for engineering solutions. The Prime Minister gets a dishonourable mention here, on account of his enthusiasm for nudge policies to prompt voters into eating better and being greener.

All this polemicising is delivered with a delightful bitchiness and Morozov spends much of his book in hand-to-hand combat with some of his “internet-centric” opponents (Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky). The result, though, is that he pays too little attention to why we live in an age dominated by zealous engineers. One answer may be generational – that technological positivism has become the reflex instinct for a post-coldwar generation assured that all the big questions in politics have now been settled.

Or you could look at two of the societies driving the IT age. The US and India are both marked by small states, in which the aspirant middle classes cannot rely on government support in good schooling, higher education, health care and pensions. Inside your private bubble, why wouldn’t you steer clear of the hurly-burly of democratic politics and go for pragmatic individualism instead?

By not widening his focus to the political context, Morozov is as guilty of internetcentrism as his targets. Indeed, until reading these books, I hadn’t realised how much serious, non-fiction writing now resembles those quarter-hour Ted talks in which smart people rely on nifty neologisms and tidy framing to make an argument. In his book, Lanier’s only index is of new terms he has coined and where they first appear. And To Save Everything, Click Here concludes with a joke about how Morozov should have produced a book with “one big idea” but can only offer “two middle-sized ideas”.

He’s better than that. For someone who was born in 1984, Morozov has done an obscene amount of reading. Early in the book, he imagines a dinner party attended by Michael Oakeshott, Jane Jacobs, Ivan Illich and Friedrich Hayek; and every time he takes on some wrong-headed internet evangelist, he lets you know just how much of their dreck he’s yawned over.

As a result, To Save Everything, Click Here comes with endnotes that stretch on for 50 pages. By contrast, Who Owns the Future? has a bunch of links to blogs and Facebook pages. And Lanier writes as if pretty much all Engine room: one of Google’s eight data centres he’s read is a bunch of blogs and Facebook pages. It is a shame, because his earlier book You Are Not a Gadget was a bracing polemic on how our reliance on IT is hollowing out culture.

This time, he wants to discuss how technology is polarising the economy between the Larry Pages and Sergey Brins at the very top and the rest of us. It’s a noble, timely objective but Lanier goes about it as cackhandedly as if he were nailing jelly to the wall. From at least the Industrial Revolution onwards, economists and others have been arguing over how technology, be it the loom or the laptop, will change workers’ standing. Yet Lanier seems to be unaware of most of this work.

However sunny and open-minded the author may be, his book bears the unmistakable ring of the Rotary club member unwinding after a two-bottle lunch. He gives a lazy economic history of the world, based on the idea that wealth flows naturally towards a tiny elite. But it is the cash-grab by a few in Britain and the US over the past 20 years that has been remarkable in postwar history.

The future, Lanier believes, stands to be even more unequal. An elite of Facebooks and Amazons and their “siren servers” will gather ever more information on the rest of us, all the better to sell us stuff. Yet the price of technological advance is that van drivers, lawyers, accountants and others have their jobs taken over by robots.

According to Lanier, our only hope is to charge these companies for the data they gather on us. It is a cheerless future, in which 99 per cent of the population are, in effect, digital welfare claimants: doing nothing productive or independent and surrendering their most intimate details in return for spare change.

Whatever Lanier may think, Google, Apple and Amazon are not forces of nature but businesses with workers and stockholders and supply chains. There is nothing inevitable about Apple outsourcing work to China, especially when research shows that it could make its iPhones in the US and still take a gross margin of 46 per cent – one of the highest in the world. Lanier does not bother with such frippery as regulating our internet companies or nationalising these siren servers. Those would be political solutions and he is an engineer who wants to do what works.

Towards the end of his book, Morozov quotes the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset: “I wish it would dawn upon engineers that, in order to be an engineer, it is not enough to be an engineer.” For all his dissident qualities, Lanier is still stuck in the engineering mindset.

Aditya Chakrabortty is the economics leader writer for the Guardian. You can hear Aditya discuss the issues raised in this article in more detail in Episode One of the New Statesman podcast