Published: Oct. 13, 2021 By

In late September, Professor Lewis Dartnell of the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Westminster gave a presentation to students and faculty of the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics & Society on “The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch.” His talk concerned ways we might deal with a rapidly changing technological landscape — as well as how we might prepare for the challenge of rebuilding society.

Professor Dartnell answered a few questions about his work and his presentation.

Professor Lewis Dartnell in orange shirt
Professor Lewis Dartnell

What interested you in the topic of rebuilding, especially in the context of technology?

I was interested in this notion of having to rebuild everything from scratch as a way of peering behind the scenes of our modern world. I wanted to explore all this technology that we simply take for granted in our everyday lives and ask how it works, in terms of the network of infrastructure that supports us today, as well as how did this develop over the centuries of history.

What ethical questions might we consider in the context of rebuilding? Would we rebuild for rebuilding's sake, or might we seek to improve conditions in this potential future? Might we use this thought exercise as a way to improve conditions in our current context?

If some kind of global catastrophe ever did occur I don’t think the survivors would be rebuilding just for the sake of it — they would be trying to provide a more reliable and comfortable life for themselves with fewer dangers and hardships, just as we did in our own historical progression. But of course, there’s nothing that says a rebooting civilisation needs to follow the same developmental paths that we did — if they know something’s possible, they could take shortcuts or leapfrog to particular technologies, or as a society decide to eschew certain applications of science technology. Holding this mirror to our own current world, yes, I think this thought process could help show us alternative ways of doing things and start transitioning to a more sustainable situation.  

How is current technology "invisible"? Does that invisibility obfuscate the labor of and cost to others?

If technology works well, and is properly integrated into surrounding systems, then it is practically invisible. We use it intuitively or automatically without needing to give it much thought. This applies to not just older technologies like the internal combustion engine but also much more recent solutions like the operating system of a smartphone. When we take something for granted, we no longer really appreciate all that it does for us, or consider what impact its manufacture might have on human lives or the environment.  

How might our future engineers benefit from exploring questions of ethics and interrogating underlying assumptions about technological systems and societal organization? In what ways are engineers well-suited to this kind of thinking?

Engineers in general are often very good at thinking about systems — complexes of interacting parts and how they function together overall, or, indeed, malfunction. This is exactly the necessary kind of mindset for considering our society as a whole, and the infrastructure of technologies and processes that supports it, and so where the most effective changes might be targeted. The issues around adoption of any particular technology are not just “does it work?” but “who does it benefit or detriment?” or” what might be longer-term repercussions of its widespread use?” These ethical considerations are often very hard to determine fully in advance — the history of technology is full of unintended consequences.

How might engineers and scientists engage with this type of thinking throughout their careers?

What I was trying to achieve with the book The Knowledge was simply to get people thinking just a little more about examining our everyday lives and asking: “Where does this all come from, how does it work, how is it made, what is its footprint on the world?”

I think this sort of “back to first principles” approach is really useful no matter what branch of science and engineering you might work in. I’m not arguing, of course, that we all need to take some kind of primitive survival course and know how to farm our own food or smelt our own metals, but exploring just a little into the foundations of our world will help us appreciate all that we currently have.

The Knowledge features Dartnell’s insights into how we might prepare for the challenges and opportunities of rebuilding society after a catastrophic collapse. The website also features reading lists, videos and additional resources for those who find the topic interesting.