Postmodern engineering?

Several years ago I kept encountering references to postmodernism but it seemed to be a very slippery concept and I was unable to grasp what it meant.  So when the Sydney Uni continuing education program had a short lecture series on postmodernism I went along.  Wikipedia says this:

Postmodernism is a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the problematisation of objective truth … in particular it attacks the use of sharp classifications …  it holds realities to be plural and relative … Postmodernism has influenced many cultural fields, including literary criticism, sociology, linguistics, architecture, visual arts, and music.

Maybe that seems clear enough as a high level description (or maybe not), but as the lecturer looked in more detail at art,  philosophy, literature, architecture, etc it still made little sense to me. Perhaps I just didn’t have enough background in the humanities.

But one night the lights went on:  The unifying theme seemed to be a loss of certainty.  In the extreme, postmodern philosophers seem to believe it is impossible to certain about anything.  (People like me with a technical/scientific background have a lot of trouble with that; Richard Dawkins put it beautifully:  “Show me a cultural relativist at 30 000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite”.)  In artistic endeavours postmodernism seems to manifest itself as the acceptance of almost any style, as opposed to a single “culturally correct” style of expression (ie. it’s no longer certain what comprises acceptable art).

This is all a pretty amateur interpretation – experts might disagree vehemently.  But I found “loss of certainty” to be a concept that resonated, and one that extends across the “two cultures” divide, from the humanities to science and technology.

Quantum theory certainly introduced a very clear loss of certainty into physics, at least at the scale of subatomic particles.  More relevant here is the loss of certainty in design conditions for engineering.

Probably engineers have always tacitly recognised the absence of certainty but often it isn’t articulated.  However over the last few decades it seems that recognition of uncertainty is increasingly being built into the design process.  Structural engineers have been moving towards limit state design for a long time (in contrast to the deterministic approach of allowable stress design).  Reliability-based analysis and design using advanced statistical methods is developing in some disciplines (including pipeline engineering).  And in Australian pipeline engineering we have a risk-based standard that allows the design to be adapted depending on the likelihood and consequences of uncertain events.

So as postmodernism developed in the humanities through the second half of the 20th century so did what I might call a postmodern approach to engineering.

I have no idea whether postmodern philosophers and other humanities thinkers would agree that 21st century Australian pipeline engineering is also “postmodern”.

How comfortable are you with lack of certainty in inputs to the decisions you need to make?

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One Response to Postmodern engineering?

  1. Pingback: Gaining wisdom | Pipelines OZ

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