Sunday, February 20, 2005

Wanted: A zoom lens mentality for the engineering enterrpise

(This op-ed appeared in the February 7th issue of Electronic Engineering Times: http://www.eet.com/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=59300573)

As an average student I was always curious as to what made smart kids smart. So when I came to work in Silicon Valley as an adult, amid so many bright people, I decided to explore this further.

I noticed that some people have an amazing ability to look at a complex problem, zero in on the key issue, and by addressing that, fix the surrounding issues too. So that’s it! Focus on the heart of the matter; the rest will fall into place.

If only. The more I looked, the more I noticed the downside of this single-minded focus. By zeroing in on a specific problem there’s a risk of not seeing how this-here connects to that-there; of not being able to then stand back and connect the dots.

Eventually, I saw that the really sharp people are those with a zoom-lens mentality: able to discern when bit-level focus is required, and when the 10,000-foot view is necessary - to shift focus effortlessly from the nano to the giga level, and back again, as required.

I was reminded of the need for this recently at CES. It was mind-numbing to walk the 1.5 million square foot show floor and navigate the tsunami of new, cool gadgets, then later watch the evening news with the horrific images of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The very technology enabling us to witness this event, empathize with the victims and make contributions in unprecedented amounts, looked inappropriate on the Las Vegas show floor.

This disconnect between Vegas and Phuket drives home the urgency of developing a zoom lens mentality within the engineering enterprise:

• Although consumer electronic devices can be cool, let’s zoom back and remember they are means to an end, not the ends themselves; they are a method of communicating, not the message;

• for all the convenience of digital devices – gathering, storing, manipulating and transmitting information – they’ll never replace the authentic analog world. Nature spent 14 billion years designing us to experience the world in waveforms (sound, light, heat and even oceanic); we are woven into the warp and woof of Nature’s web;

• for all the cachet of the virtual lifestyle, we’re embedded in nature, and like the poet said we’re all involved in humankind. When our gadgets facilitate community they’re a blessing; when their purpose is to deluge us with images of violence and salaciousness, to hold our attention til the ads come on to excite our greed and envy, they’re an affliction.

We who know enough about these new tools to write the user manuals, should also be able to comment knowledgeably on how to use them sanely and humanely, so we don’t find ourselves and our communities subsumed into a digital, virtual, soul-less environment where weapons are smart, our products merely cool, and anxiety is a way of life. The products of our ingenuity now dominate the center of society; we can no longer claim we are divorced from their effects under the doctrine of ethical neutrality.

We’re told to think outside the box; we must learn to think outside the box factory. At its core, engineering is about making things better. In that respect, engineering is a subset of the moral order. And there appear to be four steps to help sharpen that effort:

• Start with a data Sabbath – spend at least 12-15 percent of the week unplugged, backing off from the digital to the analog. For all the benefits of digital processing, nature designed us to experience the world in waveforms. And nature bats last.

• When we do back off from the work-shop-entertainment matrix, appreciate what we’ve got; where we are; who we’re with. The naturalist John Muir observed, “If I touch anything in the world I find it’s connected to everything in the universe.” There are a lot of dots still waiting to be connected;

• Just as every technology innovation leverages the physical part of us – muscles, senses, brain – there’s also a portfolio of tools designed over centuries to leverage our mind, awareness, soul, spirit, atman, pneuma, rhuah, anima. These tools are called prayer, meditation, yoga, chi gong, tai chi, dance, song… They are free for the using. No one has IP protection on them, and never will.

• And if it’s not possible to exercise the zoom lens mentality in one’s present workplace, and circumstances don’t permit a graceful exit right now, we can still plug in to the analog, natural web of being by contributing our skills on our own time. Here are some places to start the exploration:

o CharityFocus (www.charityfocus.org), a celebration of the spirit of service;

o Engineers without Borders (www.ewb.ca), like Doctors without Borders;

o National Center for Appropriate Technology (www.ncat.org), providing the needy with access to beneficial technologies;

o Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org) fostering efficient use of resources;

o Association for Conflict Resolution (www.arcnet.org), non-violent problem solving.

o And there is more information at www.reconnecting.com.

We could all stand to sharpen our zoom lens mentality if we want to maintain a human handle on the systems we’re creating, allowing us to shift as needed from bit level issues of design tools, verification and wafer fabrication, to the larger issues of healing, teaching, building and mending.

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