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Rogue One: An Industrial Design Engineering Ethics Story

  • Dec 27, 2016 |

    The first installment in the Star Wars Anthology series, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opened this weekend to rave reviews. The movie introduces us to Jyn Erso, the daughter of the top industrial design engineer for the Imperial military named Galen Erso. Imperial director Orson Krennic then forces Galen to return to work on a weapon of mass destruction later infamously called the Death Star. Despite its reputation as a symbol of fear and oppression and its confounding vulnerability to proton torpedoes, the Death Star continues to be a subject of endless fascination—especially in the design world. In advance of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a new book—Death Star Owner’s Technical Manual—lays bare the plans for the station that, presumably, get stolen by rebels, transmitted to Princess Leia, secreted in an R2 unit on board the Rand Ecliptic, and eventually made possible the Death Star’s destruction. Oh, sorry: spoilers.

    Rogue One provides a satisfying backstory of how the Death Star came to be, but in the process, the film also forces the audience to reflect on the ethical dilemmas, intimidation and guilt associated with creating technology that is capable of extinguishing life. Furthermore, the drawings of the planet-killing not-a-moon may look like gobbledygook to you, but to a trained designer, they’re fair game for criticism. That’s not just because of the Death Star’s evil connotations, but due to obvious design flaws. These include, among many other things, limited amenities for stormtroopers, defense vulnerabilities, severe aesthetic disappointments, and a real lack of creativity when it comes to disposal of waste heat.

    For example, the Death Star’s egregious is lack of sustainability. Having a reactor core reliant on fossil fuels generates a lot of waste byproduct that is going to contribute to landfill excess in the universe. The Death Star really should diversify its energy supply with solar photovoltaics at the very least. Apparently, a carbon emissions section should be included the Empire’s annual sustainability report.

    As an industrial design engineering ethics story, industrial design engineers are more central than Jedi or Sith, Rogue One breaks new ground for the franchise both in its characters but also in the ethical territory it covers.  Not to diminish the character arcs of Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, but the core ethical arc of the film is one man’s decision to industrial design engineer the Death Star in such a way as to prevent its use for galactic domination. One could fairly retitle the movie to ‘Rogue One: An Industrial Design Engineering Ethics Story.’

    The review essay will address Rogue One as the industrial design engineering ethics case study it is. Properly understanding the ethical power of the industrial design engineers in Rogue One enriches our understanding of good and evil in the Star Wars universe and furthers our understanding of what industrial design engineering ethically truly means. Industrial design engineering ethics is the field of applied ethics and system of moral principles that apply to the practice of industrial design engineering. The field examines and sets the obligations by industrial design engineers to society, to their clients, and to the profession.

    The movie begins with the Death Star program director, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) finding and returning his escaped top scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Despite all the resources of the Empire and its access to the dark side, the Death Star takes 15 more years to build, requiring incredible effort and the capabilities of a top designer and scientist of Galen’s caliber. The challenge of industrial design engineering was apparent to all, as Grand Moff Tarkin notes years of challenges and delays. It is important to note that while the movie calls Galen a scientist, he was leading a design effort and a team of industrial design engineers. To us, he clearly is an industrial design engineer.

    Industrial design engineers take seriously their responsibility — not just for the quality of the jobs they work on — but for the safety and well-being of the public at large. Here, the movie also makes its industrial design engineering ethics explicit. Before the opening scene, Galen Erso had escaped the Death Star project because of his moral objections, likely against the Empire as well as the concept of making such a terrifying weapon at all. After Krennic captures him, Galen later tells his daughter Jyn that he had a choice: he could have continued abstaining, and let someone else build the Death Star, or he could dive deep into the project, become indispensable to it, and find a way to stop it. He chooses to dive deep, and succeeds in building a subtle flaw in the Death Star design. Then 15 years later, he sends a messenger to the Rebellion informing them of the weapon’s existence, power and most importantly, its fatal flaw.  

    Ethics is the study of the characteristics of morals, and involves the moral choices made by individuals as they interact with other persons. Industrial design engineers need to be aware of ethics as they make choices during their professional practice of industrial design engineering. Its ethics will be defined as the rules and standards governing the conduct of industrial design engineers in their roles as professionals. Galen’s reflection on engineering could have come straight out of real-life engineering discussions for engineers’ role in developing major weapons systems. In the real world, Galen could have become a conscientious objector and left the project, but oftentimes engineers can choose to stay engaged and try to influence the project. In our world, some engineers did change fields and while some engineering societies sponsored large public debates about the role of technology in society. Engineering schools added ethics to their curriculum, but the changes were ultimately too narrow without systematic study of industrial design engineering ethics.

    One of the most powerful gifts of industrial design engineering is how it improves lives. Critically, Galen modified the Death Star design creating a critical flaw that could be used to destroy the Death Star. This weakness, a path for a missile charge to travel from the Death Star surface through an exhaust port to hit the center reactor, was then exploited by the Rebels and, in particularly, Luke Skywalker in Episode IV. Erso demonstrates that if one is imaginative enough, there can be ways to change or modify a design so that it has a different impact on society, so that people can interact with the design in a positive way, or so that it can best contribute to a more just world. While Galen’s change to the Death Star is an extreme case, it reveals that industrial design engineers can make many decisions that affect our everyday lives.

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