Burak Kanber, Engineer

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Do we have a moral obligation to society?

On November 3, 2012

I just spent 48 hours without electricity. I’m not complaining; I could have had it much worse (many people in Staten Island did) and very fortunately nobody I know was hurt or lost their home. But my experience without power got me thinking.

I was sitting around in the dark thinking about whether ConEd would give us a pro-rated discount for the 48 hours we went without power. (I don’t care if they do or not, I was just curious about the mundane.) Then I realized that 48 hours without power amounts to about $6 on my bill.

Six dollars? That’s it? If I could have paid a premium to keep my power on during Hurricane Sandy I gladly would have paid maybe $50 or even $100 just for that $6 worth of electricity. Isn’t that amazing? Electricity is so valuable to us and yet so cheap. And also so inaccessible to the undeveloped world.

Of course, I wouldn’t be able to pay a sustained $1,500 a month for electricity, but the fact that I’d shell out $100 to keep my power on during a storm made me realize just how valuable it is. And that’s not an easy feat. I used to be a hybrid car engineer, and I worked on several renewable energy projects in my grad school years. I always felt I had a grounded, solid understanding of how valuable electricity is.

But actually living without it gave me a new perspective. It made me think about places where power isn’t a given, like my grandparents’ house in the mountains in Turkey. Power comes and goes there and it’s just a way of life. But if that were to happen here it wouldn’t be acceptable.

Most people like to think that they’re empathetic to poorer nations’ way of life. But are we really? I always thought I maintained the appropriate level of gratefulness and empathy, but after just 48 hours with no power I started to go crazy. It was demoralizing, sitting in the dark, cold and helpless and cut off.

And now I have an existential crisis. I used to be a mechanical engineer. I have my master’s degree in hybrid car design and I’ve also done quite a bit of work in renewable energy. And I left that behind to do what? Software engineering. I make websites and write code for the first world. I turned my back on my altruistic goals of helping the environment and designing clean tech because “it wasn’t for me” and “I wanted to be my own boss”.

Is that fair? Is that a decision I’m morally allowed to make? I have the skills to help other people out but instead I’m running a startup and writing on my blog. Should I feel guilty? Do I have a moral obligation to use my engineering skills to give back to the world in a bigger way? I don’t know. I enjoy software more–which is why I switched. I have more experience in software than mechanical engineering, but that may be a moot point: having a couple of degrees and being published in hybrid vehicles engineering may have made me more valuable to the sustainable engineering world than the I am to the web startup world.

And if I’m more valuable to the sustainable world — if they need me more — than the startup world, am I supposed to be doing sustainable engineering with my life? Do I get to just recklessly choose which I pursue? Or am I supposed to go the way that needs me more?

Do what you love, or do what you’re good at?

I think I’ll stick to what I love for now (software and startups), but if anyone wants to buy my company for a few hundred million (it’s worth it!) then I promise I’ll follow in Elon Musk’s footsteps and focus on the rest of the world.

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