Hopeful Cynics

I believe their is a common thread of hopeful cynicism that binds Science Fiction fans and engineers together.


Engineers have to be cynics:

Cynicism is the belief that can go wrong, probably will go wrong. And if it didn’t go wrong yet, just give it time. Everything breaks, eventually. The hopeful part is the belief that it will all still be worth it.

Merely hopeful engineers don’t do very well. Engineering is really the study of strategies to make things work. Most of making things work is keeping them from breaking or going wrong. And when things do go wrong, building things so that they can be fixed. The more complex the thing, the more ways it can go wrong. Therefore, most of engineering is really prevention of fault and not creation.

The most successful engineers are the ones who can imagine the possible, then imagine all the ways it can fail. By facing these potentials failures, engineers look for the best paths to success. They  simplify plans to minimize moving parts and opportunities for failures. They build in safeties. They design for redundancies. At each step, they have to ask is it worth it?

Will each extra step decrease the failure changes enough to justify the added cost, complexity, and time? If you stand back, will any of the work be worth it?


Engineers have to have hope:

This is where hope over takes. It is a common theme in SciFi that humanity builds new things by some sort of compulsion. We race headlong into new technologies before we even know what we are doing. In SciFi this stories usually these turn into tales of caution.

But when you look at the work and tedium it takes to accomplish most things, those who create start with a hope and faith that the end result will be worth it. Whether they are a crafter, a writer, or an engineer; there is a unprovable belief that the effort could be worth it.

They balance a cynical understanding of how things really work and usually turn out; but they are able to temper this with a belief that it is still better to move forward.


SciFi predicts people, not science:

People love that Science Fiction “predicts the future.” It imagines new technologies and worlds. But this is just the setting for SciFi’s real treasure, SciFi tells us what kind of people we would and could be.

The SciFi author presents us a world and people as a though experiment. Cynically, the author tells us what these people would do with such a world. More hopefully, the author tells us what these people could do.

If given space colonies, these people of Earth would probably extend their politics as they have been for the past 1,000 years. The fantastic setting becomes a way to explore human nature. Tell us about ourselves. Show us all the ways we could mess it up.

These stories of would-be futures appeal the cynical nature of the engineer, preventible yet inevitable dystopias.

But take Gene Roddenberry, he gave us not stories of humans in space; but what kind of people we could become if we had a perspective of being one of many races in a vast galaxy. His stories speak of what we could be, stories which appeal to the hope and faith that engineers have that it is all worth it….and maybe even possible.

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