Monday, February 04, 2013

The Worth of Work

Most professional engineers work for pay, and that leads to an interesting question:  which is more important, the work or the pay you get for it?  I bring up that question after reading an essay on work by the well-known medievalist C. S. Lewis. 

In the essay, Lewis distinguished between two types of work.  The first type is work that is worth doing for its own sake.  Some professions are automatically included in this classification:  teachers (Lewis was a professor at Oxford), doctors, pastors, and other members of the helping professions, for instance.  As long as members of these groups do their work faithfully and competently, they should have no problem looking themselves in the mirror and saying, “I’m glad I do what I do, because it makes the world a better place.”  There are other types of work that can fit into this first category, and I’ll get to those in a minute.

The second kind of work is done merely to get a paycheck.  The thing you do for the paycheck is almost irrelevant:  it is simply a means to the end of getting money.  Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong about earning money.  In a fallen world, money and economics are inescapable aspects of existence.  But if you make money your No. 1 priority and aren’t too particular about how you get it, you can end up doing things that, at best, are unnecessary for the world’s betterment, and at worst, positively harm others.  Scam operators, burglars, and drug dealers all get money, but the legal system has objections to their methods.

Where do engineers fit into all this?  There is no easy general answer to that question.  I think the question of pay is high on the list of most young engineering graduates early in their careers.  It’s the first thing they often mention when you ask them what they’ll do after graduation:  “go out and earn some bucks!”  But with their special expertise and competencies in design, engineers at least have a chance to wind up doing the first kind of job:  one that is intrinsically worth doing on its own merits, regardless of the pay scale. 

Besides engineering tasks that serve the obvious helping professions, I think a wide variety of other kinds of engineering jobs are worth doing on their own.  What if the thing you help create doesn’t directly help people, in the sense of medical treatments and so on, but is a thing of beauty—an artistic creation that helps others see the world in a way they had not seen it before?  Take, for example, the platoons of engineers needed to make an animated film these days, the kind that takes the natural world seriously and attempts to portray it the way it really looks and acts. 

If you peruse the output of the Association of Computing Machinery’s annual SIGGRAPH conferences (many examples of which are on YouTube), you will find an amazing array of animations of everything from hair blowing in the wind, to cannonballs blasting through realistic curtains, to ribbons tying themselves into realistic knots.  These things wind up in almost unnoticeable corners of animated films, but they add realism and depth as the engineers behind the scenes overcome the challenges of using great but limited computing power to portray the way physical objects really interact with each other.  The audience gets to see only those simulations that worked.  The ones that blow up or produce screen confetti end up on the digital cutting-room floor, and serve as stepping stones along the way to success. 

A less straightforward example of engineering that is worth doing is the work of engineers who create machines that do work formerly done by people.  The chairman of Foxconn, the company that makes iPhones and employs over a million people worldwide, says that he wants to replace as many of his workers as he can with robots.  Three-dimensional printers that turn CAD drawings into working machines with moving parts are on the market now—my school is thinking of buying one, so you know they can’t be that expensive.  The story of technological unemployment is at least as old as the Industrial Revolution, but signs are that it’s going to be a huge factor in the worldwide economy in the next few years.   And engineers are behind all the technology that will let Foxconn run with more robots than people, if that ever comes to pass.

Does this mean that engineers will eventually work themselves out of a job, like the mythical snake that started eating its own tail until it disappeared?  Some people think so.  A group calling itself the Transhumanists believe computers will soon become smarter than people and basically take over the world, leaving behind the old-fashioned “meat-cage” models of people who are based in natural biology.

Those of us with a Christian worldview know this isn’t possible, however, because machines don’t have spirits.  You could in principle have a world full of machines busily making other machines and exchanging bits and so on, but without humans there would be no spirit and no life.  There might be a great deal going on in that world, but without anyone to see it, it would be a dead world, as dead as the moon. 

The thing called a human being is an amalgam of spirit and matter, and exists because of love.  To the extent we recognize that fact, we are guided into the right occupation and work for the right reasons.  To the extent we forget it, we play into the hands of those for whom money is everything, and for whom love is simply another overhead expense to be eliminated.

Sources:  C. S. Lewis’s essay “Good Work and Good Works” appears as chapter 5 in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1959).  I learned of Foxconn’s plans and interesting facts on 3-D printing from an article by Michael Ventura that appeared in the online edition of the Austin Chronicle on Jan. 25, 2013 at

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