Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Death Of The Engineer

This story by Rajaratarala as well as a question A asked me last week reminded me of one of my bones of contention. The question, unlike the answer, was a simple one.

"What do you think of technology Dad?"

My answer was one of those rambling Dad when we have to think and speak at the same time whilst trying to sound knowledgeable and wise ones. The ramble consisted of miscellaneous nuggets about positives and negatives, social networking versus family values and other stuff that people like Dinidu and The Auf are quite comfortable discussing but is way above my head.

My own Dad, before he retired, was a service engineer. He was one of those old fashioned types who went around to the customers of his firm and fixed things. That's generally what used to happen.

Engineers had a sort of inquisitive, nay creative mind. They investigated a fault or problem and figured out the solution. If that solution involved bending a piece of metal in a Heath Robinson fashion and then adapting a spare coat hanger to attach a widget to the flux capacitor then that's what they did. And in those days a widget was something tangible that had three dimensions and hurt you if it fell on your head, not a fancy thing that you can add to your blog to see what colour pants your readers are wearing.

These days, and I know I run the risk of sounding like an old bastard here, engineers have mostly become fitters, hardly evolution I reckon. I blame technology though, as I discovered in my answer to A's question, I'm mostly in favour of technology.

I frequently observe "engineers", a title so spurious these days that is has to be placed within speech marks, when we have to call them out at work for any number of computer or office machinery type problems. They turn up, ask what the problem is and then sniff around the appropriate bit of machinery and do everything that we've already done before we decided to call out the maintenance people.

Then they call their office and ask Dan the controller if he knows anything about that model. Dan tells them to check something. They check the something, figure out that it's broken, order a part from a massive warehouse somewhere near Swindon and return a few days later to fit it. There's minimal skill involved, perhaps the ability to use satnav, a mobile phone and some very basic training on how to open up office machinery and of course how to ask where the toilet is on the way out are the only requirements.

My car is a fairly decent BMW but technology and the demise of the mechanic is helping BMW, not me. Whenever there's a problem I take it to my dealer. Of course it's more or less impossible for me to take it to an independent mechanic as they face the prospect of the death penalty for even looking at a BMW and two death penalties for working on one.

One of the idiots at the dealer plugs a big computer into my car and downloads the information to tell him which part has to be replaced. It's done by another idiot, one who'd probably struggle to change a plug, and I end up paying a small fortune for it. Thinking is not on the agenda. All of that assumes the big computer is working. If it isn't then they have to call out an "engineer". Pah, I say. Sometimes what goes around comes around.

I dread to think what would happen if the computer "engineer" drives a BMW that has broken down. It could all get very messy, like one of the more advanced plots in Walker Texas Ranger.

Our forklift broke down at work some weeks ago. I called up the forklift company and they promptly dispatched an "engineer". Several months later he arrived, made some tutting noises and told us that we needed a new part. If I remember rightly the part was going to cost fourteen million pounds and a bit more for fitting it. I had no choice but to go with the suggestion.

Some days later a different engineer arrived but the part hadn't come yet. My lack of inverted commas there was entirely deliberate. He was an older gent, if it was in Sri Lanka I'd have been tempted to call him Uncle, and he was called Ron. Now I know in Serendib you don't have blokes called Ron, the closest you have is dodgy fellows closely linked with dodgier land deals and ex presidents and they're called Ronnie.

Here in England a chap called Ron is guaranteed to be honest and reliable. You could go up to a stranger, one with a "My name is Ron" T shirt, in the street and ask him to look after your life savings for a short while. He'd readily agree and he'd be there waiting for you when you came back. He'd probably have polished your coins for you while you were gone. That's what Rons are like.

This Ron took a look at the forklift and told me that the part didn't need replacing, that he could fix the old one and the other "engineer" was just being lazy. Ron then spent about three hours bending, banging and twisting all sorts of things to make the part work again. He succeeded, he went and didn't ask where the toilet was on his way out. As he left I watched him with that feeling that wildlife fellows must have as they watch one of the last examples of a species stroll off into the jungle.

What's next though?

How long will it be before Doctors stop treating things because it's too expensive and they just replace parts? Will I go to my Doctor with a pain in my arm and be told that I need a new arm? Will my Doctor ring up an expert and ask if he knows anything about arms? Will my Doctor become a "Doctor"?

Bring back the real mechanics and the real engineers.

We want Rons.


Sach said...

It is the price you pay for the advancement of technology. The age of lone geniuses is long gone I suppose. Now the technology has advanced the need for one person to know many things is greatly reduced.

This is in fact why you find people like the guy in Rajaratarala's story more in these parts (by which I mean SL, not Japan) of the world than in the west.

Also, now you've mentioned doctors, the "doctors" in Japan have a great respect and admiration for doctors in Sri Lanka. They believe our people are more skilled - especially in surgeries and stuff - than them. Why? Because they have more technology and we don't.

Sadly, you can't have both it seems.

Rajaratarala said...

glad to be of some inspiration for your writing, which I enjoyed immensely. The world is indeed going crackers while in Sri Lanka we just keep on lighting crackers even if they would be banned in any other country due to safety concerns. Any way I digress.

PseudoRandom said...

See, I don't like the word 'engineer' being thrown around like pre-election promises. You've used the word 'mechanic' in places, but I feel all the 'engineers' you've mentioned in this post should be called mechanics. People don't use the word 'mechanic' any more (I think) because it has a working class connotation that's incompatible with the whole 'upward social mobility' idea.

In my view, technology has three phases. The first involves the scientist, who tries to understand natural phenomena. That understanding is passed on to the engineer, who uses it to develop technology for the betterment of mankind. The mechanic takes that technology and distributes it to everyone else. The problem you've described arises when the mechanic doesn't (or more likely, doesn't want to) have a working knowledge of the technology that they're supposed to becomes easier just to "replace the part".

As for why your friend Ron was able to fix the guess is it's 'cos he enjoys and takes pride in what he does and he gets satisfaction out of his job. And I think you'll agree, this isn't something we see often from my generation.

So I wouldn't blame the technology...I would blame the 'instant gratification culture' of my generation, and our general lack of enthusiasm regarding science and how things work. I know I'm opening a pandora's box regarding the quality of science education in schools, but I think it's a major problem.

Apologies for the long comment!

Scrumps said...

Dealers are rubbish! Man, I would buy one of those damn manchines if it meant I saved 6 billion pounds bu taking it to the dealer every time something goes wrong with my car!

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Sach - Yes, that's what I was trying to say about technology, that it's mostly good but there are some negatives too. I think it's often the case that Drs in SL are very innovative as they sometimes have to work in much tougher conditions than those elsewhere, perhaps they're less constrained by systems and bureaucracy also.

Rajaratarala - Thank you for reading too. I have the utmost admiration for what you're trying to do.

Pseudo - No apologies are needed. While writing the post I had a thought in the back of my mind that I'd mention something about these sorts not being "engineers" in the strict definition of the word. Then, true to form, I totally forgot.

My own way of thinking is that these people aren't engineers, more fixers and fitters, the exact degree depending on whether they're like Ron or the modern day replace a part man. You're right about the mechanic not wanting to have a working knowledge of the technology but I think it's a shame that so many are like that now.

I don't feel that the blame lies with either technology or with your generation. More that these are downsides of the very big positives that technology and the increasingly high cost of labour in the world today. Thanks for the thought out comment as ever.

David Blacker said...

Well, I might disagree a bit on the SL superdocs. Ever notice that there are almost no natural births in hospitals anymore -- particularly in Colombo ones? It's all caesareans. Why? I'll tell you why -- it's 'cos it's easier -- cut 'em open and just pull the baby out. Saves all that labour time (good pun huh?). The surgeons get paid, the hospital pulls in the insurance money, and everyone's happy.

Over here in Germany, you'd have to be at the Pearly Gates before a midwife will let a surgeon near a mother.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

DB - I think an interesting addendum to your point is the fact that many women seem to be opting for a caesarean now as a way of having an "easier" labour, both in terms of pain and timing. I'm not sure what I think of this, even if I have a right to an opinion really, being a man and all.

Serendib_Isle said...

Technology is the ‘tool’ that kills the skill.

As for “replacing-the-part-behaviour” I would blame the marketers and the salesmen (humans), not the technology. ;)