Oct/Nov 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilisation

Review by Ann Skea

Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilisation.
John Browne.
Bloomsbury. 2019. 409 pp.
ISBN 978 1 5266 0570 2.

By the end of the first chapter, entitled "Progress," I felt had been brow-beaten by an engineer who sees every aspect of human development as attributable to engineers. "Engineering," he writes, "is wrapped around all of us, like a protective, life-sustaining blanket." To prove this, he tells us that he has "gone back into the past and forward into the future, to demonstrate that engineering is at the heart of human progress."

He does not define the term "engineer," but, having stated that there is an engineer in every one of us, he applies it to everyone from the stone-age tool maker, to industrialists, geneticists, scientists, atomic and sub-atomic physicists, and more. Only later in the book does he distinguish between different professions. At one point, for example, making the grandiose claim that "engineers save more lives than physicians."

One feels inclined to point out that he has already said that engineers are responsible for creating the atomic bomb and other military weapons which destroy life on a vast scale. However, in this case, he argues for the need for military deterrence as a protective measure, and that human empathy, punishment, responsible government and international agreements will make the use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction taboo and "keep would-be barbarians outside the city gates."

It is difficult to know just what sort of reader this book is intended to satisfy. Its sub-title suggests that it deals with Engineering the Future of Civilisation: a pretentious claim. It is magisterial in its overview of the history, development and innovation in everything from industrial change, printing, architecture, travel, biology, genetics, medicine, computers, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine/human interfaces and much more. But anyone who has a background in, or an interest in, science and technology will be familiar with most of what is presented.

For the general reader, Browne writes fluently and personalizes his accounts with fragments of his own life. He tells us, for example, that his mother was a survivor of Auschwitz; that he lives "for most of the year" in a palace overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice; that he was "fortunate enough to travel on Concorde many times"; and that he collects hand-decorated Japanese lacquer pens, with which he chooses to write. He also tells us about his world-wide travels and his many meetings with eminent men and women from a great range of disciplines. All of this distances him from readers whose ordinary every-day lives never include such opportunities. And the scope and extent of the book would make it a challenge for many readers.

Browne, however, has been a very successful businessman, and he has been recognized by such prestigious bodies as the Crick Institute for biomedical research, the Royal Society (of which he is a Fellow), and the Royal Academy of Engineers (of which he became President). He is well-qualified to describe the human journey through the historical scientific and technological development. His focus, however, is narrowed to that of an engineer who can see no other way of looking at the world.

Yes, engineered tools have made many surgical procedures quicker, less invasive and more accurate, but it is the knowledge, experience and skill of the medical team using them which determines the outcome for the patient.

Certainly, mechanical developments allow for greater efficiency in manufacture and delivery, for cost saving and mass-production, but the jobs they create are very different to those they replace, and not everyone would agree that this makes their lives better.

It is a pity, too, that the final chapter of the book, "Imagine," is so short and is devoted to such things as particle-acceleration, ultra-small processors, brain-mapping and artificial intelligence. There is nothing in it about the arts which stimulate the imagination, the use of which is essential for the invention and creation of new technologies; or about the social sciences which help people to come to terms with rapid change; or about the great variety of cultures and peoples who find their own innovative ways of using the tools which engineers invent.


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