The Quest for Perpetual Motion

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In an apparent attempt to establish its identity as a boatload of busybodies, ExxonMobil has been running ads in which a series of adolescents tries to convince other adolescents to become engineers. The young’uns, most of whom come across as pushy and unpleasant, if not positively unbalanced by somebody’s good intentions, ask the mighty questions of our time:

Who’s gonna do it? . . .
Design cars that capture emissions?
Build bridges that fix themselves?
Get more clean water to everyone?

The answer, according to the scripted kids, is: “Engineers! That’s who! Be an engineer!

I wouldn’t mind if more kids became engineers, but I hope that someone will let them know that engineers don’t just think up a trendy “problem” and then fix it.

Consider the idea of “bridges that fix themselves.” Even I can imagine a bridge with some contraption attached to it that could make some kind of repairs on the rest of the bridge. But how much would that contraption cost? How much would it cost to construct? Who would pay for it? With what? Earned in what way? Who would maintain it? Who would supervise its operations? Who would fix it when it needed to be fixed? Who would pay all these people? Again, with what? What would the engineer who designed the “self-fixing” bridge — or the people who constructed it, or the people who are supposed to run it — have been doing if some do-gooder hadn’t commissioned him to work on such a structure? Would he have been designing something more useful, perhaps?

I have some other questions, too — larger, and almost as obvious. What kind of society makes possible the existence of engineers and the situations in which they are able to devise whatever they devise? On what assumptions, institutions, and practices is that society based? If, for example, everyone doesn’t have clean water, why is that? Is it because enough ambitious young people somehow failed to become engineers? Or is it because of some broader problem, some problem that may involve authoritarian government, superstitious resentment of “Western” science, a static, anticapitalist economy, “the tragedy of the commons” (i.e., communal ownership), a lack of respect for “women’s work” (washing, cooking, getting water) . . . Is it possible that these are problems, and that they won’t be solved by clean little TV kids who want to “fix” all the “issues” their teachers mention?

How do you find the answers to these questions? Who’s gonna do it — who’s going to study the economic history and political philosophy and social practices and moral concepts that may shed light on them? If society provides a good environment for our young engineers, how can that environment be maintained? If society goes bad, who will fix it? How? And at what price, financial and intellectual? Or will social conditions fix themselves, because some social engineer devised a political contraption to make that happen? And will it work &‐ or will it be the kind of thing that engineers used to call, derisively, a perpetual motion machine?

Because that is what the Exxon ad promotes: the idea, already far too prominent in our society, that there are self-fixing, frictionless, cost-free solutions for every problem — the idea that there is, in fact, such a thing as a perpetual motion machine.

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