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The Engines of Our IngenuityAn Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture$
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John H. Lienhard

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780195135831

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195135831.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 24 July 2021

Being There

Being There

(p.229) 17 Being There
The Engines of Our Ingenuity

John H. Lienhard

Oxford University Press

We come at last to the forbidden first person, the I am. No story is right until the teller is part of it. Yet a peculiar mischief is abroad in the land of science and engineering. It is a mischief born out of the noblest of intentions. For decades it has spread like the flu, far beyond the technical journals that gave it birth. The intention is to let us stand like blindfolded Justice—pure, objective, and aloof. To do this, we write about our work without ever speaking in the first person. We try to let fact speak for itself. Instead of saying, “I solved the equation and got y = log x”, we write, “The solution of the equation is y = log x”. We turn our actions into facts that are untouched by human hands. To some extent we must do that. Our facts should be sufficiently solid that we do not need to prop them up with our desires. Third-person detachment has its place, but my own person is not so easy to erase. Suppose I think another engineer, whom I shall call Hoople, is wrong. I am not objective about Hoople, but I must appear to be. So I write, “It is believed that Hoople is incorrect.” That’s a cheap shot. I express my thoughts without taking responsibility for them. I seem to be reporting general disapproval of Hoople. In the unholy name of objectivity, I make it sound as though the whole profession thinks that Hoople is a fool. Now radio and TV journalists are doing it. I cringe every time I hear, “It is expected that Congress will pass the bill. “Who expects that? The announcer? The Democrats? A government official? Maybe the soy sauce lobby is the expectant source. So instead of objectivity we get obfuscation. If our work really occurred in objective isolation, we could write about it that way. But people are present. They think and they act. If we fail to represent human intervention accurately, we are dishonest, and objectivity becomes meaningless. The things we make tell the world what we are.

Keywords:   author, balloons, education, objectivity, radios, sewing machines, telegraph, word processors, writing

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