Sunday, May 25, 2008

Remembering Brian O'Connell

Last Thursday, May 22 brought the sad news of the passing of Brian O'Connell the previous day. Anyone who knew Brian, or met him even once, was not likely to forget him. For those of you who did not have the privilege of meeting him, I would like first to offer you my sympathy. Then I will try to describe one of the most colorful personalities ever to grace the field of engineering ethics.

This business tends to attract people with mixed backgrounds who are both conversant with the intricacies of some technical field and also interested in the human side of things. Brian was no exception. He once told me he was one of the youngest people ever to run a planetarium show at Hartford's Gengras Planetarium, when as a young teenager he was asked to fill in for the regular operator whom Brian had become friends with. But his interest in the depths of the human soul expressed itself soon thereafter when he attended seminary for a while. Deciding he wasn't quite cut out to be a priest, he switched to computer science, and then back to humanities as he took a law degree and practiced law for several years. Eventually he joined Central Connecticut State University and served with distinction in both their computer science and philosophy departments.

I met Brian shortly after he discovered the Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT), a society within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He was the guy with long blond hair, horn-rim glasses, and a suave and engaging manner, and he saw something humorous in just about everything. Among the more staid, business-suit-clad engineers that often showed up at SSIT meetings, Brian looked like a hippie who had wandered into a Rotary Club meeting by accident. He was the kind of person who could walk into a room and change the whole tone of conversation in five minutes from boredom to excitement, and he often did.

Naturally, not everybody always agreed with Brian's ideas. But he had the ability to see the other person's point of view instinctively, sometimes better than the other person himself. I'm sure that's what made him a good lawyer, and it is also what made him an excellent advocate of engineering ethics in a wide variety of fields, starting with computer ethics and ranging over other areas it would take a detailed study of Brian's writings to determine. As I have said elsewhere, seeing the other person's point of view is an essential first step in good engineering ethics, and Brian could do that better than just about anyone I know. In everything Brian did, there was a foundational joy in living and a desire to see other people blessed by the same joy, not harmed. And technology, since it was such a big part of life nowadays, was something Brian wanted to bless people with, not the other way around.

I think that desire is what drove him to work so energetically on behalf of the SSIT (which he served in many capacities, including President), on behalf of his law clients when he practiced law, and on behalf of his students at CCSU, many of whom he invited to his own basement lab in his house in West Hartford. When I last saw him in July of 2007, he showed me where he pursued robotics projects with his students and we talked about what he could do with robotics and remote control radio links, which he had obtained an amateur radio license to use.
Brian's actions in his chosen professions (and I count at least three: law, computer science, and engineering ethics) all sprang from a view of life that was deeply rooted in his religious and philosophical outlook. We never spoke about it much, but he was familiar with the classics and liked to quote thoughtful people of faith, from St. Augustine to G. K. Chesterton. Like Chesterton, Brian believed life was a thing to be enjoyed with all one's might. Chesterton enjoyed a glass of wine and a cigar, and Brian was partial to tobacco as well (his lung cancer was diagnosed in the spring of 2007). His legacy continues in the lives of the hundreds or thousands of students, colleagues, and fellow professionals who, I hope, will know more about engineering ethics and act on that knowledge because of something Brian did, said, or wrote. His life crossed the paths of the rest of us like a skyrocket shooting up through the trees. Perhaps Edna St. Vincent Millay had someone like Brian in mind when she wrote

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!

Requiscat in pace, Brian.

1 comment:

  1. I met Brian at a global Conference on Ethics at Teknon University in Haifa, Israel. A kinder more brilliant man will never be found, and he was a brilliant public speaker when he presented his paper. He made our group's time there magical. Always ready for the next adventure, our group's most memorable meal was a gathering a restaurant in the Haifa's port. This was 1996, and we all experienced our first fruit smoothies there. What a laugh and what fun he was. What a loss to his colleagues, friends, and family. My deepest condolences.