Monday, April 25, 2011

Pornography and the Decline of the Nerd

You can’t have engineering ethics without engineers, so every once in a while I look into the question of where our future engineers are coming from. There’s no law that assures us that in every batch of 18-year-olds, there will always be a sufficient number both interested in and qualified for the engineering work of tomorrow. Some cultures seem inhospitable to the growth of engineers, while others sprout them like weeds on my lawn. My latest look into this topic is inspired by an article with the intriguing title, “Pornography & the End of Eros.”

The author, a teacher, farmer, and freelance writer named Joe Bissonnette, looks at several studies in the U. S. and Japan which claim to find a correlation between a sharp decline in the incidence of reported rapes and the explosion of low-cost, widely available pornography, mainly on the Internet. Of course, simple correlation does not prove causation: both effects may be independent, or caused by something else entirely. But Bissonnette thinks the connection is real, and due to a “demystification factor” discussed as long ago as Socrates.

The basic idea is this: the nuclear conventional family requires a man who views his wife as a mystery to be explored, a kingdom to be conquered, and a treasure to be cherished. In contrast to these romantic notions, both pornography and Socrates (who recommended that men and women do gymnastics in the nude together, for political reasons) favor the reduction of eros to a commonplace commodity: instantly available on demand, routinized, and wholly under the control of the user. Consequently (and here is where engineering comes into the picture), Bissonnette says that “Edgy, libidinous, repressed, and sublimating young men are an endangered species. . . . Young men experience vicarious heroism through video games like Mortal Kombat, and relieve themselves of any arising sexual tensions through Internet porn, virtual sex, or relationship-free escort services.” One could add “relationship-free hookups” to that list, especially if the college environment on many campuses is taken into consideration. In other words, the classic shy, repressed, awkward-around-women nerd of yore is an endangered species.

The following is not meant to imply that women who truly desire to become engineers should encounter any artificial obstacles on their career path. But the fact remains that, despite millions of dollars spent by the National Science Foundation for raising the consciousness of women that engineering is a legitimate profession to consider, only about 15% to 20% of practicing engineers are female, and much less than that in certain fields like mechanical engineering and computer science. So if we woke up tomorrow and found that men around the world had permanently lost all interest in engineering, we’d have real problems in filling the gap with women. Therefore, discussing the problem of why more men don’t go into engineering is a reasonable thing to do.

The punchline is this: I think Bissonnette is onto something. His idea would be extremely hard to prove to the satisfaction of statistically-minded sociologists, and it might just melt away in the hard glare of survey-type investigations. But it makes intuitive sense to me.

Engineering is a demanding occupation which requires long-range planning, organization, a certain degree of pessimism allowing for the imagining of worst-case scenarios, and in short, a personality type that is capable of repressing the satisfaction of immediate desires in the cause of achieving longer-term goals. One could almost argue that the essence of engineering is planning, not the kind of spontaneous self-gratification that pornography allows.

Whatever the cause, it is a petrified fact that fewer undergraduates are choosing engineering as a major. The total undergraduate enrollment in U. S. engineering programs was essentially flat from 1985 to 2005, about 450,000. But in those two decades the U. S. population grew by 25%. So compared to the population, engineering enrollment has declined by a fourth. This is not a good trend.

It may be that online pornography is not a major factor in this decline, or is instead yet another symptom of a deeper cultural malaise. Despite all the equal-opportunity rhetoric expended on the topic, it is true that engineers tend to have certain personality features in common. While it would be absolutely wrong to pre-screen people for engineering school based on a survey of personality types, for example, it would be a legitimate social-science question to ask what in a culture favors the production of certain personality types and not others, namely the personality types that are attracted to, and competent in, engineering. If anyone ever braved the political winds to investigate this question in a dispassionate way, I think the results would show that engineers are disproportionately the product of strong, intact families with positive role models played by, pardon the expression, fathers. In today’s divorce-ridden politicized culture, such a finding would be heresy, and so I am not holding my breath in the expectation of seeing it published any time soon. But the type of family environment that produces “repressed, sublimated” men who treat women with true respect, admiration, and a sense of the mysterious, is also more likely to produce men who are good at engineering and want to do it.

In terms of what to do, I think the hope lies more in the spiritual realm than in anything any government can do, short of getting out of the way. And there is always hope for that.

Sources: Joe Bissonnette’s article, “Pornography & The End of Eros” appeared in vol. 36, no. 4, Fall 2010, pp. 74-79 of the Human Life Review. The statistics on undergraduate engineering enrollment in 1985 and 2005 are from the U. S. National Science Foundation website

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