Go Big or Go Home
Wednesday, June 11, 2014By Steven H. VanderLeest
As a kid, I loved getting the Scholastic book catalogs. Several times a year, our teacher would hand them out, giving us a deadline of a few days later to hand in our book orders. I was an avid reader and my parents often indulged me with a handful of books, provided the total cost was reasonable. Occasionally I would blow my entire budget on one large book, and that book was often the Guinness Book of World Records. I spent hours pouring over its fine-print pages discovering the world’s largest ball of string, the world’s tallest skyscraper, the world’s heaviest twins, the record for the longest fingernails, the fastest human, the tallest human, on and on it went.
Why are we so fascinated with the record for the largest, fastest, heaviest? In his blog titled “Hubris”, Tim Fernholz reviews a study by the Danish researcher Bent Flyvjberg that explores really big engineering endeavors, concluding that projects costing more than $1 billion almost always go over budget. Flyvjberg goes on to identify four reasons society pursues large projects anyway:
- technological: engineers enjoy building the newest or largest item of its kind
- political: big public works can enhance the reputation and stature of a politician
- economic: big projects mean lots of business for construction companies
- aesthetic: large projects often have a certain artistic appeal
It seems to me that this answers the first order question of why society pursues massive engineering projects despite their huge costs (that almost always end up even higher than expected). However, it still begs the question of why society is willing to pay for the big project in the first place, even if it does generate work (which certainly could be generated with smaller projects). It still begs the question of why politicians gain stature from advocating big projects more than from sponsoring small projects. It still begs the question why engineers are more energized by building the newest or largest. By titling his blog “Hubris”, Fernholz implies that these reasons boil down to the age old vice of pride. I freely admit that pride is likely a significant driver for big projects. Neighbors that vie to build the largest, boldest Christmas display on their street are often driven by a measure of conceit.
Surely national pride was at stake for Americans who woke up to learn that the USSR had succeeded in putting the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. This event drove a wave of scientific and technological development in the US, culminating with the massive engineering project to put the first human on the moon.
Fernholz also mentions the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel as the paradigmatic symbol of big projects that failed. One of my colleagues at Calvin, professor Gayle Ermer, examines this story in a paper at the 2008 Christian Engineering Education Conference, titled “Lessons from the Tower of Babel” (http://www.calvin.edu/academic/engineering/ces/ceec/#past) She considers the tale of Babel and says “The implication could be drawn from this interpretation that Christians should not be investing a great deal of time and effort in technological accomplishments on a grand scale. While it may be true that over-reliance on technological achievements can detract from trust in God, it is questionable whether this is the primary lesson of the Babel story. “ She goes on to describe a God-honoring approach to technology that does not depend on the size and scale of the technology, but more so on its direction.
I think that big technological projects are often driven by pride, a starting point that likely means the direction is not God-honoring. However, pride is not the only reason for pursuing a big technological project. In the name of stewardship of resources, we might seek economies of scale, such as building large wind turbines instead of smaller ones. In pursuing a calling to develop and unfold God’s creation, we might build big. Competition might drive a big project, not because of pride, but in order for a company to survive. Engineers might view a large project as pursuing their calling, following Colossians 3:17 “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Should Christians participate in big technology projects? I believe so. However, we should do so with a discerning spirit and a keen sensitivity to avoid pride, working to design and build in a way that honors God and loves our neighbor.
The Thessalonians Stayed Home
Friday, February 21, 2014By Steven H. VanderLeest
I’m a natural introvert. On the Myers-Briggs personality test, my E-I axis shows up slightly towards the “E” for Extrovert, but my guess is that it slowly nudged toward E over the last couple decades due to my classroom teaching and my involvement with a business or two. Am I anti-social? Not at all. But I don’t seek out the center of the party either. The slow degradation in my hearing is probably moving me back toward “I” for Introvert, since I now find it difficult to catch all the words of conversations in large, loud crowds. Given my own predilections, I’ve sometimes wondered: does the Great Commission apply to introverts?
When the gospel came to Thessalonica, the first believers formed a local church. Having done so, they did not immediately depart on mission trips. They stayed home. Remaining in their neighborhoods and retaining their jobs, they became salt and light to the world—right there in Thessalonica. The great commission to bring the gospel to all the world does not mean we all must travel as far as possible from our starting point. The lost are not only in far-away developing countries, they are also in our own communities. They live next door. They are the poor and homeless on the corner. They work in the same building as we do. They are the banker, the real estate agent, and the coffee shop barista.
Yes, the Thessalonians only heard the gospel in the first place because Paul arrived and told them the Good News. There is certainly an important role for missionaries to foreign locales. Likewise, there is an important role for the rest of us as local missionaries. My point is that mission does not equate to remote location. It is a calling for all Christians, wherever they are and wherever they go.
This broad calling to mission not only denies any geographical distinctions, it also denies temporal or category distinctions. We are called to mission on Mondays as much as Sundays. We are called to mission at work, at play, at home, and at the mall. Work is not merely to pay the way for missionary trips. Work is a mission trip.
Engineering students taking the senior design project course at Calvin often choose “mission” projects as the focus of their capstone design experience. By this they usually mean an international humanitarian project, such as creating an improved sewage system for a village in the Andes foothills of Ecuador or a community lampost and cell-phone charger for hot and sunny Ghana. I am delighted to see these projects come to fruition and encouraged to see our students serving others using their engineering gifts. However, I cringe at the label “mission” because it implies the other projects are not mission-based. If all the world belongs to God (it does) and if Christ rules every aspect of our lives (he does), then every aspect of our lives and every facet of our vocation should fall under divine dominion. Think about the way God made us as bodies, not simply spirits. We have a need to eat and drink. We need rest. God could have made us without those needs, but since he did, then aren’t those functions as holy as praying, preaching, or proselytizing? Further, I believe God made us with an innate ability and need to work, to create, to build. Then isn’t our work also holy?
This is not to say that anything we do at work is pleasing to God simply because it is part of our job. Sin can warp our work so that it is no longer in the direction God intended. Nevertheless, in principle, every engineering project is a mission project. Developing a new computer for a large corporation is a mission project.
As a closing thought, today I can stay home in mission and also reach out to remote communities. Technology now connects us with the far flung corners of the earth. Our global communication technology provides tools for introverts and extroverts to witness to the ends of the earth. Derek Schuurman puts it this way: “Indeed, technology has made the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ even more broad, since we are able to reach anywhere on a global scale as never before.” (Derek C. Schuurman, Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture, and Computer Technology, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013., p. 118) When we consider the breadth of our calling as Christians to be all-encompassing because it all belongs to God, then when I am traveling the digital highway, I can and must be the good samaritan who offers a helping hand to those I encounter who are in need.
Technology & the Seven Deadly Sins
Monday, December 30, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
Facebook is out, Snapchat is in. Or so it seems from conversations with family this past Christmas. Social networking might be a fad or simply technology fashion, but it does point out an underlying truth: it is tough to keep up with technology. Even engineers like me find it difficult to stay current with the flood of new gadgets, exotic engineered materials, new software apps, advances in medicine, advances in computing, and more. As technology improves and grows, our scientific understanding of the world deepens. As technology matures and expands, our ability to control our environment increases.
We change our world and even ourselves with technology. Nevertheless, human nature remains the same. We remain God’s creatures made in his own image, created good. God created us male and female, in community and relationship. Even genetic engineering does not change our human need to connect. God created us with an innate ability to recognize the divine and a special gift to worship our Creator. Even precise descriptions of subatomic quantum effects does not change our human intuition that there is something more to life than that which meets the eye. God made us the pinnacle of his creation with delegated authority and responsibility to care for the world. Even the independence we attain through technology (such as personal transportation like the automobile or personal communication like smartphones) does not change our mandate to be stewards. In fact, our role as stewards is the root of our ability to create technology. It is not surprising that God created humans with innate ability to make tools. We are homo faber, man the tool maker. As stewards, we have the special gift to value the creation, to recognize the embedded worth of the resources around us, and then to cultivate and develop out of those gifts. Our tool-making ability suits us well for these tasks.
We change our world and even ourselves with technology. Nevertheless, human nature remains the same. We remain fallen, tainted by sin so that we are inclined to hate God and each other. We remain in need of redemption by the blood of the lamb. While we humans have produced many new technologies, we have not invented any new means of salvation nor have we invented any new sins. I suggest that every “new” human foible and failing that we see depicted in the latest video or read about in our newsfeeds is old news. Creative humans will always develop new tools, and fallen humans will find ways to pursue old sins with these tools. Not to minimize the danger of tools in our fallen hands, I recognize that technology is an amplifier, so the impact can be far greater when we use tools, whether the result of unintentional mistakes due to our finite nature, or the result of malicious acts due to our fallen nature. Nevertheless, there is nothing new under the sun, in a spiritual sense.
Thus, if you are looking for a good resolution for this New Year, consider resolving to redeem your personal use of modern technology in light of the ancient list of deadly sins, established since the Medieval period:
Let’s take gluttony as an example. Literally, the term refers to excessive eating. How does that relate to technology? Today’s foods are technological marvels. Simply read the ingredients label on almost any food on the grocery shelf: it reads more like a pernicious concoction of chemicals than a recipe of items you would willingly ingest. Still, much of this engineering of food provides benefits, such as preserving the food longer, or making it look and taste better. However, we also see some unfortunate side-effects from our ability to modify our food. Much of the food on the grocery shelf is hardly food any longer, but rather a high-dose, quick delivery system for sugar and fat. The convenience and low price of these pre-packaged wonders makes it easy to slip into gluttony. Beyond the grocery store, American restaurants tend to cater to our gluttonous tendencies, so that an American-sized portion fills a large plate. We love to supersize our meals. Unfortunately we rarely call this problem for what it is: gluttony. At most we might get some small admonishment from our physician or a health magazine to watch our weight, but rarely is anyone so bold to say that, at least for some, this excess is sinful.
Beyond the food excess of literal gluttony, technology can also tempt us into more figurative gluttony, such as consuming much more energy or other natural resources than we really need, buying gadgets just to fill our pockets, or going one-click crazy on Amazon. Granted, some of our excessive consumerism is because we are trying to keep up with the Joneses (straying into greed or envy). Nevertheless, when we have more than the Joneses yet still keep consuming, we likely have lurched into gluttony.
For your New Year’s Resolution to avoid gluttony, consider tracking your progress not only by measuring your body waistline, but also by checking your technological waistline. Do you have more mobile devices, televisions, or appliances than you need? Check your grocery bill and also check your Best Buy, Newegg, and Amazon bill. Are you purchasing more tech than really necessary?
The opposite of gluttony is the virtue of temperance and moderation, which is a sign of contentment. Paul writes to the church in Philippi about this virtue: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13, NIV) For the new year, perhaps we can seek to emulate Paul, being content in all circumstances.
Design under Constraint
Wednesday, December 04, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
When I arrived at Calvin College as a first-year student considering engineering as my major, my orientation session took an unexpected turn: I got a note scheduling me for an appointment to visit a professor of English. I naively wondered whether someone had mixed up the two majors and sent me in the wrong direction. I found the room where several faculty were sitting at desks waiting to meet with their scheduled guests. Making my way through, I spotted him: Professor Stanley Wiersma. He had a broad, flowing white beard down to his upper chest. Reading glasses perched on his nose, while he scribbled some notes on the papers at his table. He was rather portly, rounding out a sweater under a sport coat as he sat heavily on the small stool behind the small desk. As I approached the desk of this man who looked rather like Santa Claus in a sport coat, I had no idea that he would change my life.
Professor Wiersma greeted me cheerfully and gestured for me to sit in the guest chair in front of him. His personality bubbled out quickly with a twinkle in his eye as he asked me a few questions about my life, hopes, and dreams. I warmed to him immediately. The purpose of the meeting? He hoped to convince me to take the honors section of English 101, which he himself would be teaching that fall. He anticipated my question: “Why would an engineer want to take honors English?” He answered his own proposed question quickly. “Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. VanderLeest, that every career would benefit from good writing skills?” He explained that while we would still cover the mechanics of grammar, parts of speech, and so forth, the focus of the course would be something wonderful. We would read poetry.
Wait. Poetry? How is this better?
It wasn’t just better, it was amazing. We studied the poetry and prose of T.S. Eliot. Amazing it was, but it wasn’t easy. Eliot’s poetry had layer upon layer of meaning. His prose was no less dense, where one could mine for intellectual gems for hours in just a single essay. Wiersma was a gentle teacher, blithely guiding the conversation along in each class, cultivating good thinking and respectful debate around the ideas we encountered in Eliot. Wiersma was also a challenging professor. He expected honors students to produce excellent work each time. About one month into the course, I handed in a paper only to get it returned to me shortly afterward, chiding me to rewrite it because I could do better than that. Later, for one of the final papers, I was writing about one of Eliot’s master works, “The Waste Land”. The day before it was due, as I was studiously typing up my paper, it slowly dawned on me that my analysis was shallow and uninspiring. My paper dissected the poem into its composite bones and sinew, but completely missed the soul and spirit at the heart of the work. My respect for Wiersma led to a creeping dread that he would find my paper lacked any originality. I worked harder to avoid banality, but without success as I plunked further words on the page. At the same time, I was getting distracted with thoughts of the most recent set of poems we had read, the Four Quartets.
Those who know me well realize that I am a planner and organizer. I rarely wait until the last minute, planning ahead to get a project done with lists and tasks and dates laid out in a grid. You will thus understand how difficult my next action was for me personally. I yanked a half-typed page out of the typewriter, scooped up my already typed pages, and tossed them aside to start over on an entirely new paper from scratch—with just one evening to write the entire thing. I wrote furiously, working out a much more original approach that had been nagging at the back of my mind. My idea was to explore the earlier poem of “The Waste Land” through the lens of the later Four Quartets poems. The Quartets provided a structure against which I could understand Eliot’s earlier ideas. They provided an echo whose reverberation whispered deeper meaning into the antecedent meter. By self-imposing the constraint of structuring my analysis of one poem through another, I had hit upon a more interesting, novel approach. This was the paper that Wiersma would want. I typed furiously late into the night as idea after idea arose from the parallels and harmony between the poems. I turned it in on time the next morning, and when I received it back, there was a personal note on the cover from Wiersma, expressing his appreciation for my unique approach.
Years later, I came across a quote attributed to Eliot that crystallized not only my experience in writing that paper, but also rang true more broadly in my experience: “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” This is the strange paradox: design under constraint does not stifle ideas, but instead produces creativity and innovation. Necessity is mother of invention.
Apple understands the principle of design under constraint. When developing a new app for the iPhone, they start with pencil sketches of the interface. The iPhone has limited screen real estate, so they use paper printed with the outline of the iPhone on it, drawn ten times. The development team includes engineers and artists. They work together to sketch user interface ideas in pencil within the constraints of those shapes. Each version out of the ten must be a different design. The first few are usually easy. But after five or six, it becomes challenging to think of yet another way to let the user interact with the application. By the tenth one, the team is taxed to the limit. They brainstorm and stretch their creativity to provide one more possible solution. Why try so hard to make ten? Aren’t the first few likely the most intuitive, since the team thought of them first? It turns out that intuitive, creative design is often not the first thought, but rather the thought that came only after a mighty intellectual struggle. It is often one of those last few versions that turns out to be the truly elegant, amazing, beautiful design.
Good engineers understand the principle of design under constraint. One is always faced with trade-offs in designing a technical solution to a problem. We can make automobiles safer during a crash by bulking up the frame, but only at the cost of fuel efficiency. We can make laptops faster, but only at the cost of lower battery life. Buckminster Fuller, a 20th century American architect and engineer recognized this inherent interplay when developing building structures: “Don’t fight forces, use them.”
We are finite creatures with a physical, bodily existence. However, our bodily limitations are not something we are meant to escape. God created humans with body, mind, and spirit. Dyer recognizes this in his book on technology: “The use of the ark seems to indicate that the physical world—and what we make with it—is so important to God that he graciously chooses to use what we make in his plan of redemption. He doesn’t need to use what we make, but apparently it pleases him to do so.” (John Dyer, From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011, p. 103) Our corporeality and finiteness are constraints that give us focus. They are limits against which our creativity and imagination must push and stretch. We also encounter this paradox of constraint producing freedom in the New Testament: “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:25, NIV). As Fuller admonished architectects, so too James admonishes us not to “fight forces” (i.e., the law), but rather to find freedom in honoring the law.
I delight in this paradox. The struggle against constraints while solving a problem can run the emotional gamut of anguish, frustration, and despair. Nevertheless, that moment of inspiration eventually arrives when a new idea suddenly dawns and one sees through the problem to an elegant solution. The satisfaction of solving the problem is a great joy. Design under constraint can produce beauty and wonder. It is part and parcel of our physical reality and we are created to flourish within that structure.
Joe Lost His Job
Wednesday, October 23, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
Who stole Joe’s job? Joe was just an ordinary guy working at the fast food joint on 28th street, the local restaurant alley in Grand Rapids. He was good with customers, greeting them with a smile and cheery “hello” while he got their beverage orders. It never got too complicated. The menu offered a handful of different soft drinks, plus ice tea or water. He filled the cups with ice (unless the customer specifically asked for less) and then bumped the proper lever for the selected drink. He was quick and efficient, often filling two cups simultaneously and rarely spilling an order. He juggled new orders and free refills with calm self-assurance. Joe arrived promptly for work—never late a day in his life. He took his job seriously but he also got along with all the employees with an easy-going style and good sense of humor. Joe wasn’t greedy—just simply trying to make a living.
As such an excellent employee, why would the boss fire him? Technically he was “let go” because they were downsizing, but to Joe, it felt as emotionally hostile as being fired. He had dedicated years of his life to this work. Was there no loyalty? Was there no compassion?
It turns out that when they remodeled the restaurant, this included a new drink dispenser. However, instead of putting the dispenser behind the counter, the new one was in the customer area. Once customers could get their own drinks, Joe wasn’t needed anymore. In fact, even Joe had to admit that customers didn’t mind it. After all, they could decide just how much ice to add. They could get refills faster—rarely with any waiting compared to the old system of coming up to the counter and getting Joe’s attention. Sure, someone has to wipe down the counter area regularly and clean up the occasional spill, but the task no longer required full time attention. The syrup and carbonation canisters needed replacing regularly, but that was a quick job too. Joe didn’t know it, but the boss had made a simple financial calculation. Joe was paid $9.20 an hour, plus he got some minimal benefits. Add in various taxes, insurance, unemployment, employer share of social security, along with all the other overhead and it added up to over $15 an hour. In just three months, it cost over $7,000 to retain Joe as an employee. The drink dispenser was under $5,000. The cost of supplies was the same either way. Joe needed occasional breaks, needed vacation time, and he got sick once in a while. The dispenser was continuously on duty. Plus they could actually run customers through the line faster during the lunch and dinner rush with the new machine than they could with Joe. If the wait got too long, that meant lost business when people chose to go elsewhere to get their meal fast. With the competition squeezing them, Isabella, the boss, saw this as a matter of survival. She needed to produce the product quickly and inexpensively, else her customers would simply go elsewhere. The boss wasn’t greedy—she was simply trying to make a living and serve her customers well.
Did the drink dispenser steal Joe’s job? If it wasn’t for this insidious machine, Joe would still have his job. It is easy to blame technology for job losses, a tradition that goes back to the Luddites who took to the streets in England after massive layoffs, smashing textile machinery in the early 1800’s. The theme of man against machine has been common since the industrial revolution. The ballad of John Henry honors the prowess of a railway steel driver competing to drive his hammer faster than a new steam-driven hammering machine, winning the race as he drew his last breath. Today that debate continues. The most recent round includes stories and editorials on the self-driving car . Another recent editorial looks more broadly at lays out the case for “how technology is destroying jobs” .
While I concur that technology has a built-in bias which results in a diverse array of consequences (some unanticipated), I think this approach inappropriately demonizes technology. Let me unpack that a bit. First, I do not perceive technology as neutral. When we design a solution to a problem embodied in a technological product, that technology inevitably reflects its creator. We build in a predisposed bias that is intentional in some respects, since we intend for the technology to perform certain functions. We also build in bias without realizing it until later, when unintended consequences arise. Bias means that our tools work better for some purposes than others (a hammer is more biased to pound nails than a screwdriver). Bias means we tend to use a tool in the direction of those biases, so we tend to use a hammer for pounding. Secondly, bias does not mean agency (defined as the capability to take action or cause something). I do not fall in with the philosophers such as Ellul who perceive technology as a force in and of itself. I think blaming technology for loss of a job is a very narrow focus that misses the real culprit. The drink dispenser did not force its way into the restaurant and eject Joe. Rather, the business owner chose to use a lower cost means to accomplish an end. But is the owner the culprit here? No, the owner felt that she had to make adjustments in order to keep the business afloat and retain the jobs of all the other employees. Consumers demanded fast and very inexpensive service and that meant she hardly had a choice but to install the dispenser. Are the restaurant patrons the culprit here? The typical customers are on very short lunch breaks from rather demanding jobs that don’t pay all that well. So while they can sympathize with Isabella for needing to squeeze her budget and even more so with Joe who lost his job, their own budgets are squeezed. Thus technology is simply part of a long chain of causes and effects which touch on societal values and economic forces that form a large, complex system.
However, this complexity doesn’t lead me to despair like Ellul. Rather, I think it means we should roll up our sleeves and get to work tackling these challenges more thoughtfully. Individually we often have at least a little latitude to make choices for the better. As a society we have also have some latitude to organize the way we work and live together as a community with choices for the better. Of course there are trade-offs and hard constraints. Nevertheless, if we use some system engineering to look at the big picture and follow consequences through the whole chain of causes and effects, I believe we can make a positive difference.
Christians should seek this positive difference and they have a good sense for the way things ought to be, for shalom. Christians are called to be redemptive agents in this world, transforming our culture in service to our God and in love of our fellow creatures. However, our pursuit of the Kingdom of God and of justice must be tempered with humility. We can as easily get tunnel vision as the next guy. When we cry “injustice” at the loss of a job, it is important that we step back and think about the whole system so that we tackle the core problem: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854).