Wednesday, March 17, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
The Large Hadron Collider is slowly moving toward full operation to detect exotic subatomic particles that physicists predict, but have not yet observed. But the scientists are not the only ones waiting with bated breath. The collider has made its way into the popular psyche as a symbol of all large and complex technological projects that might have unforeseen consequences. Rather than confirmation of the latest interesting physics concepts, some predict doomsday scenarios of black holes or time warps that wipe out the entire planet.
While these far-fetched fears are unfounded, history is replete with examples of technological “wonders” that the inventor claimed was absolutely safe, only to be proved absolutely wrong in the face of a deadly catastrophic failure. The Titanic, a ship that engineers declared “virtually unsinkable”, sank. The Challenger was lost in a fiery explosion during lift-off and the Columbia destroyed on re-entry. Both space shuttles doomed by seemingly small defects: temperature-sensitive O-rings for the one and a few missing heat shield tiles (out of tens of thousands) for the other. The skywalk at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City fell. The twin towers fell. The St. Francis Dam failed. Another plane goes down (we still don’t know what caused the loss of the Airbus A330 from Brazil to go down in the Atlantic). Three Mile Island nearly melts down and Chernobyl burns. Some disasters have snuck up on us. We didn’t realize the dangers of PCBs. We didn’t notice the deterioration of the ozone layer, nor the global warming related to increased carbon dioxide production. We didn’t detect the serious side-effects of asbestos until we had surrounded ourselves with it in our building materials.
What should we conclude as people of faith? Should we abstain from all technology in despair? I don’t think so. Technology is a means to provide shelter and comfort to the homeless. It is a tool to save lives and make them flourish. It is an instrument to unleash creativity and foster collaboration. It is one of God’s good gifts that he gives to the stewards of his creation. But technology is a power tool that we must use with great care. A doctor must take care to administer the right medicine in the right amounts else risk killing the patient with the cure that was intended to save. Likewise we must be wise and discerning in our diagnosis of society’s ills and equally savvy in applying the right technological cure, monitoring our patient for any unforeseen consequences throughout the regimen. Our faith should give us pause in two ways while we use the power of technology. First, we are finite creatures. We are limited in our ability to understand all the possible outcomes of an action. We can make mistakes. So while we are responsible for our own behavior, we must also acknowledge the limits of our capacity to predict the impact of our technology, taking proper precautions to monitor its effects. Second, we are fallen creatures. Sin clouds our vision and taints our motives. While innocent mistakes are still our responsibility, intentional use of technology to satisfy greed or lust or other vices is particularly reprehensible. None of us is without sin and I must be on careful watch to examine my own motivations – especially when I wield the power of technology, amplifying the impact of my choices.
Have you experienced any unintended consequences from technology in your own life? Has that supposed time-saver actually ended up taking over your life? Did that safety latch end up pinching your finger? What are your examples?