January 6, 2013

The Mercantilist and the Engineer

In 1959, author and journalist Vance Packard wrote about the class structures inherent in the US in The Status Seekers. While his work appears fairly dated today, his basic premise, that America has always been a stratified society with distinct "classes" even as it espoused egalitarianism. I first encountered his work in high school in the mid-1970s, but even then, while I thought there was a great deal interesting in the work, I also thought he missed something critical. After thirty five years, I have a pretty good idea what it was.

Packard broke down society into nine classes in a pyramid, ranging from lower lower class (the destitute) to upper upper class (the ultra-wealthy). In his time the upper lower case consisted of the trades or blue collar workers, with the lower middle class being the lowest level of managers, and small independent service oriented business owners, the middle middle class being the layer of middle management that was all pervasive in the years after World War II, and the upper middle class being the professionals - lawyers, doctors, accountants and so forth. the lower upper class in turn consisted of the nouveau rich, while the middle upper class was the old money rich, and the upper upper class were in effect the thin strata of ultra-wealthy cloud-dwellers who dominated the world's financial system.

So far, so good, though the description of new wealth vs. old wealth I think hid a deeper truth. Moreover, Packard brushed over a few anomalous classes - the military (which has always had a two tiered class structure independent of the rest of American culture), the academic (which had a similarly distinct system of students, non-tenured professors, tenured professors and department heads and deans), and one final group that he really had trouble with - techno-nerds, which even then didn't seem to fit into the broader picture.

The reason that this last group didn't fit neatly into the equation was that the techno-nerds of the time were simply a manifestation of the engineering class, which has never fit neatly into the hierarchy. Most are well educated, but not academics, often having an ambivalent social standing somewhere between the middle managers and the professionals, but in general not belonging to either. In many respects, this has always been true. The engineering class has, over the years, bounced around. In wartime, it's not at all uncommon to find it residing with the military, which taps it's expertise, even though most engineers find war mystifying ... they see too much potential in human beings to necessarily feel that taking someone else's life is justified simply because they are not us, and in many cases, those engineers were as likely as not corresponding with their counterparts on the other side up until the day that hostilities were declared (and often even beyond that).

In peacetime (and despite waging two global wars until recently, most of the United States is still on a peacetime footing) they tend to get tapped by the upper middle class (which I think is actually part and parcel of the lower upper class) in order to gain ascendancy into the upper middle class, while knocking those in the UMC down a rung or two into the LUC). In effect what you have at play is a perennial struggle between the emergent upper class - the New Mercantilists, vs. the existing upper class - the Old Mercantilists.

In today's terms, mercantilists are investors, financiers, senior (non-technical) managers, account executives, marketing and advertising professionals and others involved in the buying, marketing and selling of goods and services. Engineers, on the other hand, are technical designers and implementers - programmers, architects (both structural and software), scientific researchers, mathematicians, information managers and librarians, industrial and product engineers, as well as most domain analysts.

It's worth noting that this process is recursive. The Old Mercantilists were a previous generation's New Mercantilists who took advantage of the technology (and the technologists) of their time to knock over the then masters of the universe. However, in the process, the old mercantilists also tied themselves to a particular technology, and so long as that technology was not made obsolete, they generally continued to build up their power base. Eventually, perhaps over generations or even dynasties, the balance of power shifted as the innovations of the technologists permeated through society and rendered the technological basis of the old guard obsolete.

Engineers and mercantilists have long had an uneasy relationship. In general, most mercantilists of one era are the beneficiaries of the achievements of engineers of the previous era. Engineers are problem solvers, and given the opportunity to attempt to find the best solution they all too frequently do not take the time to distance themselves from the projects and understand its full business ramifications until some mercantilist, who seldom has the engineer's focus, realizes that it will in fact meet a need he has for making more money.

Having done so, the mercantilist all too often realizes that should the engineer go elsewhere, so too does that exclusivity of knowledge, and so the mercantilist will generally do everything in his power to make sure the engineer stays under his control. In the past, this included killing the engineer if necessary.

Needless to say, engineers have become a little distrustful of mercantilists as a consequence.

It should be noted that politicians and senior managers generally arise from the middle upper class preferentially (as do the most influential military officers and (non-scientific) academics, even today), which usually tends to strongly color their views about social and financial morality. It's noteworthy that the current Congress is still dominated by millionaires, partially because politics is an expensive occupation, but partially because the background of those who run for Congress heavily slants towards those who are second and third generation wealthy; relatively few people who have made their wealth in the most recent technological revolution are now involved in policy setting, simply because the ones who made the wealth generally are too old while their children are not old enough to play in that arena. There are exceptions, such as Maria Cantwell of Washington State, but I suspect that we're really only going to see the scions of the New Wealthy get into politics in any numbers in the next thirty years or so as the GenXers move into the policy arena.

One problem that the engineer faces is that most mercantilists, young or old, are afraid of the engineer. Engineers are problem solvers. Mercantilists are opportunists - they seek problems to exploit, in order to make a profit. So long as the problem exists, they profit by mitigating the effects of it, but if the problem was solved, they would have no market. As such, there is often a tension when mercantilists work with engineers, because the engineer's natural impulse is to solve a problem in as thorough a manner as possible, and the idea of deliberately leaving a problem open (or even deliberately creating them, as mercantilists have been known to do) runs counter to the engineering mindset.

 Moreover, engineers tend to be egalitarian, particularly with other engineers. The open source movement is a prime example of an engineering solution, and even now, mercantilists are struggling with how to keep it under control and not ruining their business models. The transparency in government movement is an engineering solution to solving corruption in government, but politicians prefer opacity because politics is generally about doing a favor for someone in exchange for a favor for you at a crucial time, and transparency radically undermines that. It also makes it far more difficult for people to follow the long, time-honored tradition of going from politics to corporate advocacy to academia back to politics.

Not surprisingly, this often means that engineers and mercantilists speak different languages, because many of their operating assumptions are very different. Engineers are noted for the precision of their language - terms have very clear meanings, and when a term is ambiguous the natural tendency of an engineer is to formally specify a definition to disambiguate it. This precision of language is important, because it enables high throughput communication. It also has the side effect that engineers dislike lying and deliberate vagueness, because it stands in the way of communication.What's more, an engineer is more likely than others to check up on assumptions received from others when he or she is uncertain about its source or veracity, and deliberate falsehood will usually reduce the authority or weight of information from that source.

Engineering communication also involves both a bandwidth check and dominance check. When an experienced engineer communicates with someone else, he is likely to start out with probing questions to determine the level of competence of the other person and then will adjust up or down as appropriate. Competence is a big part of the engineer's stock in trade, so the authority of another person goes down in his mind when the engineer has to throttle his conceptual flow, while if in communication it's revealed that the person being addressed has a higher degree of competence, then that person's authority rises accordingly. Thus, when a new engineer is brought into a group of engineers, one of the first thing that happens is a dominance game occurs, where the new engineer attempts to establish his or her place in the social hierarchy via his competency. This often has only slight correlation with social standing in a corporate hierarchy, for instance - the most competent engineer becomes the guru, and is accorded both the highest degree of respect and to a certain extent the ability to veto a course of action, even if he is not in a position to do so socially.

Mercantilists, on the other hand, use corporate social standing (typically tied to wealth or influence) in order to both establish dominance and to communicate. Language is typically vague and multilayered. A mercantilist is constantly playing poker - attempting either to convince others to buy what they are selling against obvious resistance to do so or attempting to buy what others are selling for the least amount of outlay.  This means that in terms of communication, the mercantilist seeks to be deliberately vague, in order to provide the least amount of information to either their transactional partner or potential competitors for the same resources. This extends beyond simple monetary transactions to personal transactions - information, like everything else, can be traded for gain or loss. The mercantilist is precise only in contracts, and then only to insure that there is nothing within a transaction that can leave them obligated beyond very set terms. Theirs is the language of persuasion, and their metric of success is the degree to which their persuasion has enriched them.

Given these differences, it's perhaps not surprising that there is as much animosity as exists between the two groups. When an engineer is asked to estimate the time it takes to do a task, he or she will treat it as a problem to be solved, and will usually be able to tell you fairly accurately a range of time that such a project will take, given uncertainties for certain tasks. A mercantilist, on the other hand, will hear a time and implicitly assume that it is a commitment, and will usually attempt to minimize that time as much as possible because they are paying by the hour. A mercantilist, on the other hand, will go out of his way to never be put into a position where he is responsible for a given time commitment. Engineers are inclined to share information, because it increases their overall authority. Mercantilists are inclined to hoard information because it decreases their vulnerability and protects their advantages in the marketplace.

Even their social structures are different. Mercantilists gravitate towards hierarchies, because their social position is predicated upon their measurable influence, which can typically be seen by the number of people who work "under" them. In essence, their authority derives from the number of people who report to them, coupled with their success as sales people (either directly as field sales agents or indirectly through the number and effectiveness of the field agents that report to them). Engineers, on the other hand, gravitate towards distributed nodal networks, where you have small clusters or nodes of engineers that work with one another within the context of a larger sea of communication. In this context, an engineer's social standing is based upon their authority - the people they have studied under, the number of works they have authored, the number of papers they have presented, the number of patents they have submitted.

Put another way, for the mercantilist, authority derives from social position, while for the engineer, social position derives from authority. In many respects, this is one reason why engineers and creatives usually find common cause. A creative, whether an author, an actor, an artist, a musician or an athlete, is known primarily for his or her works. It is the strength of their works that establishes their reputation. They can become quite wealthy on the basis of that work, of course, but it is not in general their wealth that determines their social position. Indeed, like engineers, few creatives are ever really welcome in even Nouveau riche circles, and the ones that are in general are there because they have parlayed their wealth into investments and corporate control (and even then they are suspect).

On a final note - the twentieth century has been defined either by the military (which is a strong command and control society that is very hierarchical) or the mercantilist (which is a hierarchical society that tends to venerate those most successful at persuasion and making money). There are indications that the twenty first century will see the twilight of the mercantilist and the rise of the engineer (a move towards decentralized networks and authority as a measure of social status) followed by the rise of a creative class (the Millennials) where authority derives from reputation. This argues that Packard's basic premise was flawed. It may be more appropriate to think of society cycling through different structures with power and influence waxing and waning across each sector over time.

My thanks to Hugh Chatfield for the inspiration for this one. Please see his post on Emily Carr, CNN, Carl Sagan and Bucky Fuller here.


Unknown said...

Being an engineer, I am sometimes accused of "Not thinking like we do". After reading this essay, I am encouraged that my thinking is evidently recognized. Also, I am encouraged that we (collectively) are escaping from the disasterous 20th century into a more humane time.

The problem that I see is that many "western" societies are mired in 20th century thinking. With such an approach, my logic says to explore contributing to societies which are free from 20th century ideas.

Unknown said...

Being an engineer, I am sometimes accused of "Not thinking like we do". After reading this essay, I am encouraged that my thinking is evidently recognized. Also, I am encouraged that we (collectively) are escaping from the disasterous 20th century into a more humane time.

The problem that I see is that many "western" societies are mired in 20th century thinking. With such an approach, my logic says to explore contributing to societies which are free from 20th century ideas.