Flames from the Net

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan. 2003

It was a boring business meeting. Fortunately, my laptop was open and connected wirelessly to the web. The urge to leave the meeting with my mind was irresistible. After all, I rationalized, I would still be physically present, and that should count for something.

After the usual checking of the news, the market, and email, I went to a popular Internet discussion site where participants post comments about current technical issues. The topic of that morning’s discussion had drawn about 300 responses. The headline caught my attention, needless to say. It was “Who is Robert Lucky, and why should I care about his whining?”

I thought to myself, do I really want to read this? But, alas, how could I not? The discussion was about the Reflections column that I had written for the September issue of this magazine. In that column, “The Future of Engineering”, I wrote about the rise of abstraction in electrical engineering and the increasing distance from the physical reality of components and wires that I had known in my youth. I likened the display on a computer monitor to the unreality of the view from a window seat in an airliner. Towards the end of the essay I said that a possible culmination of this trend would be a future program called “engineer-in-a-box” that would replace engineers with a software tool set.

Reluctantly, I opened the first response on the discussion group.

“I think it’s a (bleeping) shame that we don’t build everything by stacking up blocks of stone like our ancestors did.”

Well, I thought, we’re being sarcastic today. But now that I had started reading, there was no turning back. Unfortunately, there was more of the same.

“Just because engineers are using bigger and fancier calculators doesn’t mean you have to write an article lamenting the demise of a profession. Seems like a whole load of rubbish.”

And then, worst of all:

“It seems like every few months someone bemoans the death of ‘real’ engineering. But hey, idiots are born every day; we just don’t do a good enough job weeding them out before they’re published.”

Well, so I’m an idiot who should have been weeded out! As you might imagine, reading all this really made my day. Through the years of writing this column I’ve received many letters and emails, and although most are complimentary, there are always those who take issue with what I’ve written. However, I must say that it’s a different and unsettling experience to read anonymous comments on the web about yourself and what you have written.

My immediate thought was to post anonymous comments to the discussion group defending myself. Something like, “I know this Bob Lucky, and he’s really a thoughtful person, so this must be an issue worth thinking about.” But no, I’d probably get trashed and come out worse than ever. There was nothing to do except read the rest of the responses while feeling old and defenseless. Obviously, the people who wrote these flames don’t miss, or probably never experienced, the old world of resistors and soldering irons. They say that things have changed, and that old fogies should just get over it.

What made it even worse is the feeling that they had a point. There’s no going back now – we traded the physical intimacy of discrete circuits for the awesome virtual power of microelectronics and software. But all I could hope for would be some old fogies out there in the discussion group who might write about what has been lost. And there were some, such as this:

“Engineers are supposed to be able to build stuff, to apply science to resolve problems, but we are raising a new generation that is being trained to use software packages and that’s about it.”

Some postings like this led to an interesting discussion about whether engineering is harder today than it was in the past. Here the weight of discussion came down on the side that engineering was just as hard in the past, relative to the environment that existed then. Now systems are much more complex, but we have sophisticated tools to handle that complexity.

Finally, I’d like to quote a literate response about the analogy I made between microcircuitry and the view from the window seat in an airliner.

“I never experienced that kind of dissonance until I accidentally barbecued an Athlon XP chip a few weeks ago. The chip package cracked open from thermal stress, and I broke it the rest of the way apart with my thumbnail. Inside there was – nothing – just a featureless, amorphous gray substrate that might have been a rock from my driveway. Maybe half a million violated transistors lay along that fault line, but my crime against them left not a trace of evidence to be seen.”

I think after writing this column I’ll stay away from that discussion group!

Robert Lucky