It is very difficult to choose just one tenant of this Critical Engineering Manifesto. Many of the tenants are interrelated, and they feed directly into much of the reading I’ve been doing recently on the human-machine entanglement.
Therefore, I pick three tenants, which I believe to be highly interrelated:
1. The Critical Engineer considers any technology depended upon to be both a challenge and a threat. The greater the dependence on a technology the greater the need to study and expose its inner workings, regardless of ownership or legal provision.
2. The Critical Engineer raises awareness that with each technological advance our techno-political literacy is challenged.
9. The Critical Engineer notes that written code expands into social and psychological realms, regulating behaviour between people and the machines they interact with. By understanding this, the Critical Engineer seeks to reconstruct user-constraints and social action through means of digital excavation.
These concepts all hinge on the power and value hierarchy wielded by those who create the “black box” around new technological developments. We have seen, with vivid and brutal clarity, what happens when we depend on a technology and allow it to “regulate our behavior” – remaining within its tightly controlled constructs, and not the questioning the legitimacy of this dependency. The “echo chamber” around social media, the propagation of fake news, the threats to cybersecurity – all of these relate to our “techno-political literacy.” When we depend on a technology, we render ourselves vulnerable to its exploitation. As the perpetual “forward march of progress” in technology continues, we are challenged to understand the new developments as they affect our liberty, communication, and access to information. The more these technological developments remain underneath the “black box” veil, the more we must apply the tenants of the Critical Engineer, to “expose its inner workings,” and “reconstruct user-constraints and social action through means of digital excavation.”
Lucy Suchman articulates the importance of “Critical Technical Practice, in which attention to the rhetorics and technologies through which a field constructs its research objects becomes an integral part of its research practice.” – Suchman, Human-Machine Reconfigurations : Plans and Situated Actions, 2nd Edition, 2007. As Critical Engineers and Practitioners, we must be self-aware and critical of our own rhetoric surrounding the technology we develop and work with – thus continually unmasking the “black box” – and refusing to become the robots of our own design.