Olympic Technology

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

I had the chance to catch the freestyle ski competition at the winter Olympics in Vancouver the other night.  The athletic prowess and simple beauty of skiers hurtling their bodies end over end in graceful spins and turns was incredible to behold.  Jump after jump, my family exclaimed “oohs” and “ahs” of astonishment.  It got me thinking about the technology of world-class sporting competitions.  The athlete hones their skills, endurance,  mental focus,  agility – tuning every muscle to precisely perform the necessary responses.  They study and practice techniques to give them an edge over the competition.  Their equipment is also critical to their success.  The skies, the poles, even their clothing is carefully designed and fabricated to contribute to the athlete’s success.  These are tools of the trade.  Like all technology, their purpose is utility, a means to an end.  Some of the best technology, in sports or elsewhere, goes almost unnoticed, staying out of the way and doing its job. 

One design norm that we might use as a guide in developing technological products is transparency.  I mean this in two senses.  The first is the idea I mentioned above, that the technology is practically invisible.  As a tool, it is meant as an aid in reaching some goal.  It is an extension of ourselves (as skis extend the foot, poles extend the arm, and ski goggles extend the function of the eyelids).  Technology that amplifies our abilities is at the same time transparent when it stays out of the way except when needed, when it keeps the focus on accomplishing the task.  The second aspect of transparency is that we can see into the technology (at least figuratively, if not literally).  It does not hide operational details.  It is intuitive, understandable, and predictable.  We should not be surprised by the tool and if it fails, it should be easy to see what went wrong (and even better, we should have some warning that a failure is imminent).  For example, some automobile brake pads are designed to emit a squeal when the lining is wearing thin, warning the driver that the pads need replacement soon.  A counter-example might be the obscure messages one sometimes gets when a computer crashes, providing no warning and little understanding.  In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World we have a dark picture of sports technology that encourages outrageous consumerism, where the technology of obstacle and electromagnetic golf makes the game complex and the tools vividly obvious.  In this light, the norm of transparency also encourages simplicity. 

Why should Christians care about transparency in technology?  Because transparency itself is a mean to ends that we value.  Transparency is a means to love and care for our neighbor who uses the product.  It is a form of honesty and truth by revealing inner workings.  It is a confirmation of trust and respect between the provider and the consumer.  Most would agree to the ethical principle that the ends do not justify the means.  But the positive side of this principle is then that we must justify both our ends and our means.  As we explore and design and deploy and use our technological tools, transparency is one way we can gauge whether those means are worthy and right.

Help for Haiti

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Why does it take a disaster before we take action?  The massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti on 12 Jan 2010 was but the latest example.  The world sprang into action soon after the shaking subsided, sending aid workers, food, water, peace-keeping troops, and money to the impoverished nation.  With over 200,000 confirmed deaths, this was certainly one of the worst natural disasters in recent history.  However, calling this disaster natural is not altogether honest.  Perhaps we have some collective responsibility for this catastrophe.  Preliminary analysis suggests that many of the deaths could have prevented if better construction practices had been used in the region.  It is easy to lay the blame for this tragedy on the earthquake itself (and surely many of the deaths would have occurred no matter the construction standard), but some responsibility lies with us too.  We have the technology to build dwellings and buildings that are reasonably resistant to earthquakes. 

I can identify at least two reasons why we didn’t fix the problem even though we knew the solution.  First, as a society, we find it quite difficult to be proactive.  We habitually ignore the prophets who predict doom around the corner unless we change our ways.  Until the doom is upon us, we prefer to turn a blind eye, hoping that we will somehow avert disaster by luck or fate. Robert Hoeksema, an American expert on the civil engineering of flood protection in the Netherlands and author of the book Designed for Dry Feet, has examined the long battle of the Dutch people to claim land from the sea.  He has noted that every major flood protection project throughout the modern history of the country has been undertaken in the aftermath of a flood disaster.  No matter the warnings beforehand, the community could not bring themselves to commit the time and money and resources necessary to build a new and better dike until a major flood had caused large numbers of casualties. 

I don’t think the Dutch are unique in this characteristic.  In part this may be a character flaw, an unwillingness to pay for prevention until the penalty is absolutely certain (closing the door only after the proverbial horse has already left the proverbial barn).  There may also be another factor at work.  Henry Petroski, a civil engineer by trade, has studied engineering failures throughout history and concluded that much of technology improvement is not a monotonic progression, where each new version is better than the next.  Rather, we refine the design of a bridge, for example, making each new bridge with less expensive materials, or thinner materials, or fewer cables.  Our goal may be reduced cost or increased aesthetics.  Each refinement brings us closer to the line of risk, until we cross it and a failure occurs.  We then learn from the failure and continue to refine. 

A second reason we didn’t take preventative action in Haiti may be that while the knowledge of good earthquake-resistant building techniques is widely available, those techniques require additional resources to implement.  The Haitians have no money.  As the poorest country in the hemisphere, they are the “have-nots” who could not afford the technology that would save their lives.  This is an issue of justice.  While I would not claim that everyone in the world deserves (has a basic right) to own a yacht or a plasma HDTV, I do believe that there are certain fundamental human rights that place an obligation on all of us.  As a sort of global and innate good Samaritan law, those of us with sufficient resources have a moral obligation to share with those in need.  We don’t owe our neighbor an HDTV, but we do owe them clean water.  We don’t owe them an SUV, but we do owe them safe shelter.  Who is our neighbor?  The one next door who is in need.  The luxuries of today’s global networks of communication that we enjoy also make us aware of neighbors further away. Haiti is our neighbor – have we offered a technological hand of help?

Kingdom Keys

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

I have a lot of keys.  I have a key to my car and a key to my wife’s car.  I have the spare key to my son’s car.  I have a key to my house, to my office door, to the Engineering Projects Building at Calvin (which is keyed differently than the Science Building where my office is located), an electronic key fob for entry to the DornerWorks building where I am a partner and also a physical key in case the electronic system fails.  I have a key to my desk, a key to my laptop security cable, a key to the file cabinet, a key to my home safe where we keep important papers, and a couple keys that I no longer recognize (but I don’t dare discard them, in case they unlock something important).  I have several electronic identity cards (some of which are paired with an additional passkey in the form of a PIN that I must remember), a couple credit cards that are a sort of financial key, and a surprisingly large number of computer passwords that I juggle in my head to keep straight.

This morning as I was leaving the house for work, throwing on my coat, grabbing my lunch bag, and heading into the garage, I noticed my shoe was untied.  I put my foot up on a bench we have near the door step, just in front of our two vehicles.  As I leaned down (which incidentally positioned my head just in front of the hood of my car), unbeknownst to me, the keys in my pocket must have squeezed together just right so that the panic button on my car key fob was depressed.  The horn wailed out – right into my ear!  I quickly fumbled for my keys while the horn screeched a couple more times.  The acoustics of the room with the garage door still down are quite impressive, practically knocking me over with blasts of sonic energy. 

The searchable online Bible site, biblegateway.org, reports only ten instances of the word “key” in the NIV version.  The first two are literal uses of the word.  In Judges 3, when Ehud killed the obese king Eglon with a two-edged sword and fled, locking the doors behind him, the servants waited “to the point of embarrassment, then had to find a key to enter the room”. In 1 Chronicles 9, the Levite gatekeepers in charge of the rooms and treasuries in the house of God are given charge of the key. 

The other eight instances of the word are figurative.  Isaiah twice prophesies about a key:  speaking of the key to the house of David and later exclaiming the fear of the Lord as the key to salvation, wisdom, and knowledge.  Two more keys appear in the gospels.  In Matthew, Jesus promises to give Peter the keys of the kingdom, telling him “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  In Luke, Jesus berates the experts in the law because they “have taken away the key to knowledge.”  The final four references to keys come in the book of Revelations.  Jesus holds the keys of death and Hades and the key of David.  A star fallen from heaven to earth is given the key to the shaft of the Abyss.  Near the end of the book, an angel with a key to the Abyss seizes the dragon and locks him in the Abyss. 

Keys are a technological instrument of power and identity.  A physical key allows entry into a locked room to access the treasure inside.  A key card signifies the identity of the holder.  A digital key decodes apparent gibberish into a meaningful message.  Our computer passwords are keys that allow us to pass by the guards at the gates of our online accounts and keep out all others.  Keys are so important that we are thrown in a panic when we lose them, even for a moment.  More figuratively, a key concept is an idea that unlocks the entire topic, the one insight that decodes all the rest. 

We must note carefully what the Pharisees lost as the key of knowledge (preferring status in the eyes of men rather than pursuing justice and mercy).  What keys are you guarding in your heart?  Are you holding on to that central key of the “fear of the Lord” so that you might find salvation, wisdom, and knowledge?

The Artificial and Natural Worlds of Avatar

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Technology looms large in the blockbuster film Avatar.  One the main themes that weaves throughout the story is the power of technology that allows humans who have come to the planet Pandora to dominate the environment and take what they want.  Those wants fall into a few predictable categories such as greed or pride.  In the end, the tension between the natural world in all its biological beauty and the artificial world in all its technological wonder is resolved with a feel-good win for the natural. 

On the surface, the film falls into the trap of dividing the world into these two supposed opposites.  But this is a false dichotomy.  There is no sharp line between the original creation and modifications of that creation.  As part of God’s good handiwork, all living creatures change the environment around them.  We have even found some examples recently of animals using tools to make those modifications.  Of course humans are the premier toolmakers and users, in fact we might better be called homo faber (man the maker) than homo sapiens (man the wise).  While Avatar appears to make the mistake of painting the world black & white, there is a more complex interaction beneath the surface.  The main character, Jake Sully finds that technology protects him, helps him overcome a disability, and enables him connect with the biological wonder of the world of Pandora.  But he also has a love-hate relationship with technology as he sees it abused by his fellow humans. 

Even deeper, though the narrative seems to advocate for a natural rather than technological way of being human, at the same time the movie itself is one of the most technologically advanced examples of modern film making of its time.  Cameron utilized some incredible motion-sensing and image processing technology to produce a movie with more realistic and engaging three-dimensional CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) than ever before. 

I don’t think we can ever really get “back to nature” in a pure sense of refraining from all modification of our environment.  Changing the world around us is part of what makes us living creatures and even more specifically part of what makes us human.  God has gifted us with this ability to unfold his creation.  The world he gave us is the most wondrous Erector set one could ever imagine – one that was meant to be taken out of the box and explored!  We are called in the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 to flourish in God’s world, and I believe that flourishing means developing culture, including the invention of new technological products.  The film Avatar is just one more reminder in a long line of science fiction prophetic voices that warn us of the dangers of letting the power of our tools delude us into thinking we are the ultimate masters of our environment.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest