Fairytales & the shadow side of engineering

I originally posted this text here (from where you can also access the audio version), but since it’s about fairytales and how we might tell them as much as it is about technologies, I thought it worthwhile reposting here.

Through SGR (Scientists for Global Responsibility), I came across an article in The Independent describing how arms company offer branded learning STEM material for primary school children in order, as critics say, to sanitise their reputation [1]. A link directs towards an “engineering fairy-tale” video supplied by BAE Systems, a British multinational arms, security and aerospace company, and based on the story of Hansel & Gretel, a tale originally collected by the Grimm brothers. This video can be accessed here [2]. Further videos featuring army personel or arms company staff reading adapted versions of well-known tales are available from stem.org. The stories are accompanied by Design & Technology activities for primary school children (usually 4 to 11 year-olds, split in various age groups) provided by educational consultancy firm STEM First [3].

BAE Systems makes profits selling weapons (and yes, the weapons are being used, and yes, they do kill people, including civilians, including children) as well as fighter-jets that are playing a key role in the Saudi bombing of Yemen, fueling one of the worst humanitarian crises of recent times [4].

“The idea of allowing arms dealers to target young children through school and home education is bizarre, dystopian and wrong. They are not doing this because of any love for education, It is because they want to build their reputations with children and parents, and sanitise the appalling things that they do,” Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade reportedly said to The Independent. He also reminds the reader that thousands of school children died in the Yemen bombings. “Bizarre, dystopian & wrong”. I can only agree. In addition, I believe that these videos illustrate our culture’s inability to face what I call the shadow side of technologies: an axe can be a tool or a weapon; a drone can save lives [5] or kill [6].

The Hansel & Gretel story is read by a uniformed young woman, who introduces herself as an aircarft technician with the British army. In this made-up tale, Hansel and Gretel’s family are living by a lake near a deep, dark forest where a witch lives. The family’s business is to make drumsticks for pop bands and one day the father needs the children’s help to cut a tree and bring it home. For the first time they’re allowed in the forest and as per the original tale, they get lost. Then, while smart, computer geek Gretel gets pen and paper to write step by step instructions on how to go home, her brother gets trapped in the witch’s house. What will the ending be? Children are tasked to help Hansel and Gretel get safely home, thus developping their problem-solving skills.

What is the link between this story and what I call “the shadow side of engineering”? By “the shadow side”, I refer to what is hidden, what is not talked about, what remains in the darkness, what is left to fester until it becomes too big to address and starts causing problems.

Let us look at the story in more details.

First, Hansel and Gretel’s parents run a drumstick making company for a living, yet the video is sponsored by an arms company. Preventing such companies from taking part in children’s education raises the issue of censorship and of where we draw the line, so I’d like to offer a slightly different take. Below is a slowly altered (and shortened) version of the introduction:

Once upon a time, a man and his two children lived happily by a lake next to a deep, dark forest. The boy was called Hansel and his older sister’s name was Gretel. Their father was working as an engineer for an arms company, making weapons and aircrafts for the British army and to sell abroad. The children had a lot of freedom, and they spent their time exploring the lake shore and skimming stones over its quiet waters. The only rule was that they must never stray into the forest for there lived a very dangerous witch.

One afternoon however, the father called the children for help. He needed to cut a particular tree that grew deep into the forest to make veneered missile heads for a special and expensive order, but he also had to attend a very important meeting. So he asked Hansel and Gretel whether they would carry the tree home for him. The children were more excited than scared at the prospect of entering the forest, and they readily agreed.

How does this sound to you? Would you be happy for your children to hear this? It’s not really pleasant, is it? Yet we need ot face this. This. What we’re doing. What we’re allowing.

I contend that if arms companies want dealing with children’s education, they should own up to what they do, for not doing so means some things aren’t properly acknowledged. One thing could be that their products are designed to kill people or is this something that can’t be said too loud? Something that needs to remain in the dark? Is there a reason why Hansel and Gretel’s parents can’t be building fighter jets? missile guidance systems? weaponised drones or autonomous killer robots? I’m sure they could still find an excuse to get into the forest, to find a particularly strong wood for bomb casings or machine gun handles, or perhaps there could be a mine deep in the wood which supplies the family in rare eath elements. If Hansel and Gretel’s parents were weapons making engineers, a sliver of light would penetrate the darkness and the door would open a crack when a six year-old asks: “Have your missiles ever killed someone?”

Arms companies exist, they sell weapons, they provide lucrative work for engineers and revenues for countries [7]. Perhaps it is time we openly talked about it – for example, is it an ethical way to earn one’s living? Of course I have an opinion on the subject, but what I’m really after is an open debate. Is this how we – as individuals, as a society, as humans on this planet – want to live? Perhaps it is, but it must be a conscious choice we take full responsibility for. That includes looking after the widow and the orphan.

But let’s face it, making drumsticks is far less controversial. In theory, they are harmless. They are designed to beat drums rather than people, and if kids were found fighting with drumsticks, then a responsible adult would probably confiscate them, not add more sticks to fuel the conflict. In addition, drumsticks are a “cool” thing to be making. I cannot help but be reminded of a Department of Electronic Engineering I worked at and where there is an excellent music technology group, the “drumstick side” of engineering. Yet military applications of electronic technologies are rife, graduating students will have the tools, skills and knowledge to work in, say, weapons manufacture, and UK universities receive funding from military sources [8]. This is little acknowledged, and as far as I know, not discussed.

What I am trying to highligh here is an institutional and societal issue and what I describe is probably symptomatic of most engineering departments around the world: they naturally convey the message that technological innovation is always “good” and a key part of building “the future” without any discussion whatsoever of what kind of future we want to build and for whom. During my engineering studies in France, we discussed the philosophy of time, but not that of weapons building, nor more generally that of engineering and technology – at least, not that I recall. Either people are working on what is perceived as harmless and beneficial technologies, or, well, one needs to make a living, or defend one’s country, or that’s the way the world works, so the shadow side remains in the shadows.

This is not without problems. I heard of, but did not witness, a student demonstration during a career fair and understood that an arms company ended up leaving. The lack of an open, informed debate leads to polarisation, it becomes all black or white, good or bad, because people – students, staff and company employees alike – do not have the tool to engage in discussions about the festering shadow side. An important step would be for arms companies interested in children’s education to acknowledge what they do in front of the kids they pretend to help teach. An urgently needed step is to open inter-disciplinary spaces for discussions in schools and universities rather than focus science-based curricula on technical knowledge and skills only. That technological innovations can have harmful applications should be openly discussed, and that requires the input of historians, sociologists, philosophers and artists. A challenging step in the current climate of impact at all costs and lack of public funding.

Finally on this first issue, it is worth noting that often, the shadow side comes first and is on the driver’s seat. Technological progress is often driven or hijacked by military needs. The first application of nuclear power was the bomb, not the production of energy. The pesticides used by modern agriculture have their root in WWI mustard gas, the Zyclon B used in Nazi gas chambers, and Agent Orange used by the Americans in Vietnam [9], while the fertilisers are derived from unused WWI explosive stocks [10]. Currently, the likelihood that we’re dealing with the consequences of gain-of-function research is no longer censored on mainstream media platforms [11]. Why was that type of research ever allowed on pathogens? Was there any debate? Was the public ever encouraged to take part? What other weapons technology is lurking unacknowledged away from the scrutiny of the people? Transparency is lacking, leading to polarisation, leading to conspiracy theories. It is urgent to acknowledge the shadow side, to stop pretending that the kind of technological innovation our culture fosters is the only way forward and always a “good” step towards so-called “progress”. The shadow side also comes last: what to do with the often toxic waste our linear manufacturing systems produce? A key example is nuclear waste, which needs to be managed for millenia to come. Yet another solution has been to resell it: depleted uranium (DU), with a half-life of 4.5 billion years, is a radio-active waste product of the uranium enrichment process. In the US, it has been given away to weapons manufacturers and DU projectiles have been used, in particular in the First Gulf War, at huge costs on all sides [12].

Second, in the STEM version of Hansel & Gretel, a tree is cut very casually. It’s a special tree they say, that would make very good drumsticks. The message here – that cutting a tree is nothing, that cutting a very special tree is nothing – is dangerous, especially given the current climate and biodiversity crises, especially as ancient woodlands are being destroyed for the sake of twenty minutes [13]. There is an option army engineers and BAE systems might never have heard of: coppicing. You can harvest branches thick enough for drumsticks without killing the tree and potentially increasing biodiversity in the process. This highlights a further dark side of engineering and of our current ‘tech-lust’ [14], which is the question of the supply chain. I have highlighted metal supply chain issues in another blog and none of it is a pretty story. Yet the issue is hardly discussed in the mainstream media and there are plans to open more mines and to reopen mines to fuel our needs for so-called “green” technologies. I felt the extent of the wastefullness of our linear production systems when watching E. Burtynsky and J. Baichal’s Manufactured landscapes, which I really encourage everyone to look up [15]. Extractivism is a dead end. We can teach our children something different. For example it could start by such simple things as making them aware that we can harvest parts of trees without killing them and that we can thank the tree for offering one of its limbs. It is high time supply chains came out of the dark. As Ryan Gellert, General Manager for Patagonia, put it in a podcast interview [16]: “If you’re in the business of making things […] the single, strongest piece of advice I’d give you is to really commit to deeply understanding your supply chain because I think almost in any business that manufactures anything that’s where the dirty stuff happens.”

Thirdly, I found watching these STEM videos very disturbing. When I shared them with other storytellers, a common opinion was that it was clumsy storytelling, but my unease went deeper. Traditional tales, even the over-used ones such as Hansel & Gretel, Cinderella or Rapunzel, bring some magic with them, they take you to a different place, a different time, a nonlinear world of the imagination, where fairy god-mothers turn up with appropriate gifts. Those stories are about experiencing life in all its complexity. It’s about sensing the darkness of the woods, and the fear of being lost. It’s about tasting the gingerbread house and relishing its sweetness. It’s about coping with adversity. Instead, those videos reduce an emotionally charged life situation to a cold problem-solving task using step-by-step instructions, teaching children to fit in a machine-ruled utilitarian world. In the STEM version of Cinderella, contrary to the “usual story”, the heroin hasn’t much time for her helpful god-mother and none for the prince. Her aim is to sell the patents of her newly invented smart household devices to a businessman in order to escape her social media hungry step-sisters. (As an aside: does one really need to know about social media, let alone own a smartphone, at 4? even at 10?) Here again the story ends with an activity: can the children help Cinderella keep time so she gets her contracts signed before midnight?

What is in the dark is more subtle here, but to me it’s the underlying world view of our technological society: following sanitised and well-determined step-by-step instructions towards an ill-defined goal called “progress”. We might as well turn into computers or be replaced by them. Perhaps this is what some of us want want, and efficiently run world of AI and transhumanism. But I have to ask: has this anything to do with life as we experience it? Life is more messy, life creates itself, life has the freedom to paint its own canvas, it’s the gift of experiencing the senses, it doesn’t care about efficiency and targets: it cares about playfullness and joy in the present moment. As I mentioned early on in another blog, technologies change the context of my life, not its quality (by which I do not mean access to hot showers).

This brought me to the question: can stories be used in STEM education? My reaction was to answer no, but teachers I shared the videos thought rather that stories were helpful to engage children with an activity. Perhaps they are, but then I believe the story should be properly told, and be part of a multi-disciplinary approach where questions of emotional intelligence can be addressed alongside the more practical challenge of finding a way to escape the witch. And if the way to escape involves more than a paperclip bridge as in Rapunzel’s story, if it involves, say, the apparition of a rainbow over which the children can walk to hitch a ride on the wind, then it should be perfectly acceptable, for in a fairy tale, there are no restriction as to what can be imagined and what is possible.

Let us end with another story, which I first read in Calling us Home by Chris Lüttichau [17]. The passage reads:

One teacher told me a Native American story I will never forget. A boy went to his grandfather in pain, saying that his friend had betrayed and hurt him; why would people do such things? The old grandfather listened carefully as the boy talked, and when his grandchild had finished, he finally spoke: ‘There are two wolves. One is the light wolf, which shares with others and seeks understanding, peace and friendship. Its quality is respect. The other is the dark wolf, which is greedy, envious and seeks conflict. It judges others, and takes even small things personally; it carries anger and hate. Every human being has the two wolves inside them, and these wolves are in a terrible battle, both trying to win dominion.’The boy thought about this, and asked, ‘Which one wins?’ His grandfather sat in silence for a while. The he said, ‘The one you feed’.

In not acknowledging the dark wolf, the shadow side of what our technologies can do, we risk feeding it, or letting it be fed until it becomes unmanageable, like Fenrir, the Wolf of Scandinavian mythology who ends up devouring the Sun, the Moon and Odin himself.

Know thyself” was one of the maxims written on Appollo’s temple in Delphi [18]. It’s not easy, it can be unpleasant, but it is time we accept that as human beings, we are capable of the best and the worst, that it’s simply a matter of choice for which we need to take full responsibility. Which wolf do you feed? What kind of a world do you want to create? What technologies (if any) do you want to invite in? These are the questions I am asking myself. These are not questions for the experts, but for every single one of us.


[1] Jon Stone, “Arms industry supplying schools with ‘dystopian’ branded fairy tales for nine-year-old children”, The Independent, 24th Janury 2021. Available: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/arms-companies-fairy-tale-stories-bae-b1780982.html [accessed 29th July 2021]

[2] Hansel & Gretel, Engineering fairy tales, STEM Learning, http://www.stem.org.uk. Available: https://www.stem.org.uk/resources/elibrary/resource/484545/hansel-and-gretel [accessed 29th July 2021]

[3] Engineering fairy tales, STEM Learning, www.stem.org.uk. Available: https://www.stem.org.uk/resources/collection/484536/engineering-fairy-tales [accessed 29th July 2021]

[4] See for example: BAE Systems, Campaign Against Arms Trade, March 2021 update, www.caat.org.uk. Available: https://caat.org.uk/resources/companies/bae-systems/ [accessed 29th July 2021]

[5] Sarah Whittaker, “DJI and EENA: Drones help rescue people faster, study shows”, Drone Below news, 25th September 2018. Available: https://dronebelow.com/2018/09/25/dji-and-eena-drones-help-rescue-people-faster-study-shows/ [accessed 29th July 2021]

[6] Jamie Doward, “Britain funds research into drones who decides who they kill, says report”, The Guardian, 10th November 2018. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/10/autonomous-drones-that-decide-who-they-kill-britain-funds-research [accessed 29th July 2021]

[7] The UK, for example: “UK remains the world’s second biggest arms dealer, figures show”, BBC News, 6th October 2020, Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-54435335 [accessed 29th July 2020]

[8] For a report on military funding in UK Universities see e.g.: Dr Stuart Parkison, “Military involvement in UK Universities – an update”, conference slides, 24th January 2021, Scientists for Global Responsibility. Available: https://www.sgr.org.uk/resources/military-involvement-uk-universities-upd [accessed 29th July 2019]. See also the reports on corporate influence on science and technology here: https://www.sgr.org.uk/index.php/projects/corporate-influence-project-main-outputs

[9] See for example a documentary I highly recommend on how to forestall climate change by healing the Planet’s soils: Kiss the Ground, narrated by Woody Harrelson. Available: https://kissthegroundmovie.com/. See also: https://kisstheground.com/.

[10] See e.g. Postwar fertilizers explode in Farming in the 1940s by Wessels Living History Farm, York, Nebraska. Available: https://livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe40s/crops_04.html [accessed 30th July 2021]

[11] See for example: Aaron Feis, “‘Damning’ science shows COVID-19 likely engineered in lab: experts”, New York Post, 6th June 2021. Available: https://nypost.com/2021/06/06/damning-science-shows-covid-19-likely-engineered-in-lab/ [accessed 30th July 2021]. “Why gain-of-functions research matters”, The Conversation, 21 June 2021. Available https://theconversation.com/why-gain-of-function-research-matters-162493 [accessed 30th July 2021].

[12] I read this story on pp. 61-62 of Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, Volume I, The problem with civilization, Seven Stories Press, 2006. Fluoride is another example of waste-turned-dangerous-product the author uses. An edifying read.

[13] See e.g. the HS2 rail link campaign page of the Woodland Trust. Available: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/protecting-trees-and-woods/campaign-with-us/hs2-rail-link/ [accessed 30th July 2021]

[14] T. Maughan, “The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust”, BBC Future, 2nd April 2015. www.bbc.com/future [Online]. Available: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth [Accessed 25th February 2019]

[15] Manufactured Landscapes trailer, YouTube, published by YouTube movies on 3rd August 2011 [Online]. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVybNCPzG7M [Accessed: 19th June 2018]. See also the TED talk: Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured Landscapes, YouTube, published by Ted on 15th April 2008 [Online]. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2Dd4k63-zM [Accessed: 19th June 2018]

[16] “Business for good – Ryan Gellert”, podcast interview, Sismique, 20th March 2020. Available: https://www.sismique.fr/post/business-for-good-ryan-gellert [accessed 30th July 2021] If you are a French speaker, I highly recommend listening to this podcast.

[17] Chris Lüttichau, Calling Us Home, Head of Zeus, 2007. The quote is from pp. 23-24.

[18] See e.g. the Wikipedia page of the temple of Appollo in Delphi. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Apollo_%28Delphi%29 [accessed 30th July 2021].