Pride and Prejudice
Navigating the well-traveled course of communication failure
that often leads to engineering disasters.
I teach computer science to undergraduate students at a school in California
and one of my friends in the English
department, of all places, made an interesting comment to me the other day.
He wanted to know if my students had
ever read Frankenstein and if not if I felt
it would make them better engineers. I
asked him why he thought I should assign this book and he said he felt that
a book could change the way in which
people think about their relationship to
the world, and in particular to technology. He wasn’t being condescending,
he was dead serious. Given the number
of Frankenstein-like projects that seem
to get built with information technology, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to teach
these lessons to computer science undergraduates, to give them some notion
that they have a social responsibility?
with her every utterance and write tech-nology-bashing essays for her class to get
an A. Was this an effective use of time?
Of course not, it was a show. If you really want to reach an audience you have
to engage them with stories that you understand and can relate to their experience. When I think of the kind of story I
want to tell to undergraduate students,
I think of the Vasa, a ship and story that
I think should be better known among
I first learned of the Vasa from a
t-shirt at a conference in 1990. A company that a friend had started used the
cross section of the ship to lampoon the
ISO/OSI effort on network protocols.
“Another 7 Layer Model That Failed”
read the caption. The connection was
that ISO had seven layers and the Vasa
had seven decks, but when I found out
why the Vasa had tragically failed I be-
came fascinated, because it was such a
classic engineering failure story.
The Vasa was built between 1626 and
1628 for King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who was, at that time, attempting to
rule the Baltic Sea. In the 17th century,
rulers were expected to be capable of
more than just giving orders, so Adolphus not only organized wars, he also
helped design the ships of his naval fleet.
At the time Swedish warships had one
deck of cannons on each side from which
they fired fusillades at enemy ships,
sometimes even hitting the other ships
and damaging them. When the Vasa was
commissioned, this single row of cannons was considered state of the art.
Some time during the construction
of the ship Adolphus found out that the
Poles had ships with two decks of guns,
so he modified the design of the Vasa
to have a second gun deck. This would
PHO TOGRAPH BY PIERO SIERRA
While I have to agree in general with the
idea that telling and retelling stories
is a good way to teach people, I have to
say that the idea of using Mary Shelly’s
novel for this is very much antiquated
and unlikely to be effective in a computer science class. I, myself, was once
forced through a “Computers and Society” course in college, and although we
didn’t read Frankenstein we were beaten
over the head with a litany of how bad
computers and technology were for society from a professor who was trivial
to manipulate. All I had to do was agree