After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.Philip Pullman
Unfortunately, engineering often fails to tell its story well, and this is one reason that many people don’t understand what an engineer is, and what an engineer does. This sparked the idea of Inventive, a podcast that mixes fact and fiction to explore new ways of telling the story of engineering.
How TV portrays engineering
The current portrayal of engineering on television does the field no favours. For example, TV producers seem to be obsessed by size.
grotesquely ill-advised series, … In later episodes, Hammond will go up big buildings, pilot big ships and other examples of overcompensations for male inadequacy.Review of Richard Hammond’s Big, Stuart Jeffries, the Guardian.
These sort of programs perpetuate the misunderstanding that engineering is only about heavy engineering and big structures. Work that is undertaken in hard hats, with a high vis jacket and by blokes. But engineering is much more widespread than that. For example, listen to Episode 1 of Inventive and you’ll hear from Shrouk el-Attar, refugee, drag belly-dancer and electronic engineer. She works on femtech, technology to help women’s health.
Incidentally, femtech is just one small example of how we interact with science and medicine mostly through something that has been engineered. Often what is called science in the media is actually engineering.
Another TV Trope is things going wrong and engineering failure.
to profile, investigate, analyze and find solutions for the world’s most unbelievable engineering blundersIMDB summary of Engineering Catastrophes
Can you imagine a series being commissioned to go around showcasing “science blunders” or “artistic blunders”? In engineering we should be marvelling at how skilful engineers avoid catastrophes. Engineering blunders are actually quite rare.
There are other problems with the portrayal of Engineering such as a lot of it being about historic engineering. Now I’m a big fan of history, but this constant looking back overlooks the fact that engineering will continue to shape our lives and society into the future. So what are we doing about this on Inventive?
Inventive: Mixing Fact and Fiction
The idea behind the podcast is to not only to interview diverse Engineers with fascinating personal stories, but to bring in fiction writers to explore new ways of telling stories about Engineering. The writers are given the interviews to work from, some of them also talk direct to the engineer. We then mix the fact and fiction to create the podcast.
For example, For Shrouk we commissioned a piece by award winning writer and poet Tania Hershman. Tania produced a piece of hybrid writing combining fiction, poetry and non-fiction entitled Human Being As Circuit Board, Human Being as Dictionary. Tania does something beautiful and poetic with imagery – “human being as circuit board.” She also explores language, “human being as dictionary”. This is a story about Shrouk and her journey, and builds to a climax and a final scene that you’d never get in a normal interview podcast.
But some of the pieces our writers produced were more about what our engineers do. This is the case for Joshua Macabuag, a search and rescue engineer. We teamed up with writer Nina Allan, who was named as one of `50 Writers You Should Read Now’ by The Guardian. Her piece, Forces and Loads could have had the tag line “an engineer goes back to help in a disaster, but he’s been there before.” Disaster movies usually have a hero, but they’re not often an engineer. It’s important to say here that Joshua doesn’t see himself as a hero, this is a fictional extrapolation. Engineering is nicely woven into the narrative, but the piece is really about what happened to his Dad. This is what we get on Inventive by going beyond interviews, we get stories that really engage whilst also portraying what real engineers do.
This idea of an engineer as a hero, activist or disruptor actually appears in a few of the Inventive stories. C. M. Taylor wrote a piece titled The Night Builder, inspired by structural engineer Roma Agrawal. The work includes a banksy-like figure who works with concrete. Engineer as a disrupter isn’t a trope but it should be because engineering has a huge influence on everyone’s lives. To take an example from my field of Acoustics, recently Lou Ottens, the Dutch engineer who invented the audio cassette passed away. Obituaries appeared in the main sections of newspapers because this engineer produced a device that revolutionised how we all consumed music.
One thing that really annoys me about the portrayal of engineering on television is the use of false jeopardy. They like to build things up as though a catastrophe is going to happen “if they aren’t careful then the bridge might fall down.” As an engineer I know this isn’t going to happen, because a lot of people have expended a lot of effort engineering out the risk!
Of course jeopardy is very important for story-telling, but it has to be convincing. That is what we get by working with great authors of fiction. Emma Newman a science fiction and fantasy writer who has been on the short-list for numerous awards, wrote a piece inspired by the work of Engineer Greg Bowie. Greg makes trauma plates to treat broken bones. Emma’s piece Healing the Fractured is set in a dystopian future and we have the engineer as an unexpected hero. The engineering hero is going to use a trauma plate to smuggle something into a country with an authoritarian government. This is believable jeopardy in a great short story. But like all the works written for us, they also make you think about engineering.
One thing I don’t think we talk about enough is the ethics of engineering. A common engineering issue is unintended consequences; just because you can create a technology, should you? The Inventive episode that features engineer Ruth Amos and author Jacqueline Yallop explores this dilemma. Jacqueline is the author of three critically acclaimed novels and two works of non-fiction; she’s been long listed for the Booker Prize more than once. Her piece Swish is packed with wonderful imagery, and centres on the consequences of an invention to keep people socially distanced.
What do you think about the way engineering is portrayed in the media? What can be done about it? Please comment below.
If you want to hear about more fascinating engineers and the stories they inspired, please go to www.inventivepodcast.com. We’re also available on all the usual podcast platforms. Subscribing and liking us will mean more people will listen and learn more about engineering. We’re also really keen to get feedback via the podcast website and the usual socials.
This blog is drawn from the script from the Edinburgh Science Festival event on the 5th July, Engineers and Writers, Mixing Fact and Fiction.Follow me