Transparent Technology

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

In my engineering design courses, I teach students to use a set of norms that help guide decisions about technology development.  These design norms include justice, cultural appropriateness, caring, humility, and more.  The one I want to focus on here is transparency.  The word “transparent” has two related meanings and I intend the use of both in guiding our design of technology.  First, transparent can mean “see through” or clear, i.e., we can see into the box and view the inner workings.  It is the idea that technology should work in ways that are obvious to the user.  This may be literal transparency so that we can observe the innards of the device, but it might also mean figurative transparency, in that we understand how the device works sufficiently to diagnose problems and anticipate behavior.  There should be no surprises.  When the device fails, it should fail gracefully, in ways that the user anticipates.  Modern printers are usually transparent in their maintenance, warning the user when ink or toner is becoming low and notifying the user when a paper jam has caused a failure.  Automobile brakes provide a maintenance feature by including a “squeal” liner that screeches a clear message to the driver when the brake lining needs to be replaced. 

Second, transparency can be taken further to mean complete invisibility.  Transparent technology allows the device to fade into the background, doing its job as a tool, allowing the user to focus on more important ends because the means are working well.  A number of technological devices we use today illustrate this aspect of the transparency norm.  We rarely notice the thermostat in our homes and offices, quietly regulating the temperature so that we are always comfortable.  Occasionally we adjust the settings, but most of the time it works away without any supervision.  Another example is fluoridated water.  The first large-scale test of fluoridation was done in my home city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, starting just after World War II.  Since then the use of this technology has spread throughout much of the world.  The typical user does not notice the fluoride in the water she drinks, yet she benefits from reduced tooth decay.

Transparency does not necessarily mean simplicity (though that is helpful and even desirable).  For example, the thermostat must be designed with some hysteresis so that the furnace runs, for example, 10 minutes out of every hour rather than 10 seconds out of every minute (which would much more quickly wear out the motor and probably not properly warm the home).  The thermostat is the sensor and controller of a more complex system of a furnace and air handling ducts (or perhaps a boiler and hot water pipes).  The furnace or boiler is powered by some fuel source (perhaps electricity, natural gas, or heating oil).  The fuel source, in turn, depends on a vast distribution network of its own.

Electricity on demand is a similar mix of simplicity and complexity.  Flipping the light switch to illuminate a room is second nature to us, yet the ease of that action belies the complexity of the power grid that distributes electricity to us.  The convenience of that system makes us perhaps too complacent and too quick to use more power than we need.  In this case, the utility of electricity supply is transparent in the sense that it is almost invisibly in the background and unnoticed.  But it is not very transparent in displaying its inner workings.  While most homeowners understand the mechanism of current limiting provided by a circuit breaker or fuse, some do not properly perceive the purpose of these limits, unknowingly putting themselves at risk when they bypass a fuse or use a two-prong adapter and thus lose the protection of the grounding wire.  We also fail to comprehend the vast energy network that feeds our habits, a network that interacts in complex ways with our environment.

Interestingly, the convenience of a highly transparent technology design often leads to complacency.  Electricity is one example; credit cards are another.  The ease of financial transactions makes it difficult to resist the temptation to spend beyond one’s means (because the card gives the false impression of limitless means).  Here transparency succeeds in one sense – the technology works so well that we really don’t notice the complex financial and technical mechanisms that support that easy swipe to pay.  But in another sense, the credit card is purposely obscure, in that we don’t easily see the overall affect on our personal finance until we are deep in debt.  It encourages short-term pleasure in exchange for long-term pain, playing on our propensity for instant gratification.  These examples demonstrate that design norms by themselves can be twisted and abused.  Even when done well, they can lead to unanticipated problems.  Thus a complete set of norms is necessary. Just as engineers must make trade-offs between technical goals, so we must also balance normative goals. For example, norms of justice and stewardship can temper transparency when it leads to inequitable or wasteful behavior.  In conclusion, I advocate for transparency in our technology – but only when balanced with other technical and ethical goals.

Technology Worship

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

I like word plays, so this week I swapped the order of my blog title from last week.  So if you were hoping for that diatribe, here we go!  Compared to last week when I considered technology in aid worship, can technology become the subject of worship?  I assert that it can and does serve as an idol in our society.  Further, I admit that I have suffered gadget envy and been tempted to put tech devices too high on my list of priorities (as measured by “dollars spent” according to my checkbook and “hours spent” according to my daily planner). 

Idols are replacement gods that we substitute for the real, living God.  When I picture an “idol”, I think of some Old Testament pagan bowing down in front of a carved wooden figurine, mumbling some adoration.  I certainly don’t bow down to my iPhone or laptop or GPS navigator.  So they are not idols, right?  While I appreciate that my Tivo plays back recorded television, I don’t leap to think it is also the Creator of the universe.  So it is not an idol, right?  By the way, actually it is not a Tivo, but a Linux-based MythTV because I wanted to tinker around with it, and it was free because I had the PC sitting around anyway.  Well, actually it wasn’t free because I had to buy a TV tuner card for it and then spend hours and hours tinkering.  In fact, now that I think about it, actually, I don’t even record TV anymore because we watch Netflix and Hulu instead.  Hmm … sounds like I spend quite a bit of time and money to conveniently watch what I must admit is often not very high quality programming.  The content, that is.  The video image quality is, of course, excellent.  Even if I don’t bow down, even if I don’t adulate,  perhaps I still idolize?  Am I hypocritically giving lip-service to the one true God by praising him while spending more of my money and attention on technology?

We worship our tech idols by giving them an honored place in our homes, such as the large HDTV flat screen that is the central and most prominent item in our living rooms.  We carry our tech with us everywhere we go, such as our cellphones, cameras, or GPS navigators.  We pay careful attention to their care and feeding when we recharge, maintain, and upgrade (it seems our gods are rather needy).  The incense of 802.11n WiFi wafts through our rooms and hallways.  We have special houses of tech worship, such as the Best Buy down the street or the electronics section on Amazon.  We pay our our service plan indulgences for remission of sins.  When we suffer physical ill, we submit ourselves to intimate observation by a high priest of Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

I don’t think all of the ancient Israelites who turned to their neighbor’s gods necessarily thought those wooden statues were the Creator of the universe either.  I think they sometimes found it convenient to fit in with the crowd.  I think they sometimes thought of Jehovah as rather distant: “Sure, he’s the Creator and Sustainer, but what has he done for me lately?  I can’t see him.  I don’t hear him.”  When God doesn’t respond to our beck and call, when more tangible objects offer a little solace or comfort, perhaps we are rather more like the OT Israelites that we care to admit.  God is still on his throne, but when we don’t act like it, we put idols ahead of God.  We know God is the High King of heaven and earth with our head, but we don’t show it by our actions, so it must not be true in our hearts. 

Technology can also become a status symbol and in this respect we again repeat the mistakes of the old Israelites.  Some of them had idols made not of wood, but of silver or gold.  Their household gods were clear signals to their neighbors that they had arrived.  Whether they actually believed in them was secondary to the visible mark of wealth they conferred.  If I am drawn to the latest gadget because I want to show it off, then I have committed the same sin of idolatry mixed with pride.  I am purchasing the product because of its utility as a status symbol to show off.  I won’t admit that – I’ll offer some feeble excuses about my need for it – but my pleasure in the device derives from the envy others express, not from any noble use I make of it.  It has become my idol. 

My prayer today will be that I will not become too enamored with these lifeless objects that do not breathe, that I will not succumb to the allure of these man-made trinkets.  Rather, that I will appreciate them as part of God’s good creation and keep them in their proper place.

Worship Technology

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

What technology do you use to worship?  (If you were thinking by the title of this week’s entry that I was writing a diatribe on technology as a source of idolatry, sorry, that will need to wait for another week.)  By “worship” I mean praise and adoration of God.  I also have in mind a dialogue – a conversation – between Creator and creature.  But I prefer not to get much more specific than that, since “every definition is dangerous” (attributed to Erasmus).  Let’s start with formal worship, for example, the worship activities that occur during a church service.  There is a plethora of technology that shows up to aid us in worship. 

The house of worship itself, if it is a typical church building, is a wonderful combination of architecture, materials selection, and structural engineering.  Some buildings are designed so that one immediately recognizes them as a church, while others are more subtle, such as a building converted or leased for use as a church or perhaps a building design so modern and styled without traditional sweeping arches or striking steeples to tip us off.  The technology of the building contributes to the worship of the believer’s community that meets there by providing a space for the faithful to gather, keeping them warm (or cool) and dry, perhaps providing some creature comforts such as padded seats.  The building architecture might be designed so that form and function aesthetically combine to draw the worshiper’s eyes to certain key features, such as a cross up high and in front.  It might use stain glass windows that depict familiar Bible stories.  It might arrange seated believers in rows so that their voices combine and soar when singing, or perhaps arrange them in a more circular fashion to face one another as a family gathering around the table for a (communion) meal.  The choice of materials in wood, glass, and fabric can be important for visual aesthetics, but also for acoustic reasons.  The grand cathedrals of Europe used large spaces enclosed in stone to provide incredible spaces for choral music to resound.  In buildings of wood where tile floors were later covered with carpet, the acoustics of the room changed, slightly muffling the voice of the preacher and the songs of the choir. 

Technologies of heating, air conditioning, and electric lights allow us to meet for worship in different seasons and during the evening hours as well in daylight times.  We hardly notice these modern conveniences, a tribute to their transparency, simply supporting our needs as tools which fade into the background so that we can focus on ends rather than means.  Modern humans tend to have shorter memories, depending instead on the technology of the print to aid our recall of words and the Word.  Thus the dialog of worship is supported by printed song books and Bibles.  These technologies tend to be fairly transparent too, in that we use them to sing or to read scripture without giving the book itself much thought.  Even grape juice as a substitute for wine is a technology (the process to prevent fermentation into wine was invented in the mid 1800’s) that we hardly notice when partaking of communion.

Sometimes our technology can get in the way however, especially when it gets too complicated.  An example, I think, is the use of Powerpoint in worship services.  When done well, I think it provides some good benefits, touching on our visual predilections,  allowing us to look up while singing (which enhances vocal support, I’m told), and provides more flexibility than a printed page.  But this is also a rather complicated technological means:  our system pulls thousands or even billions of zeros and ones stored digitally on the disk of a hard drive, representing a liturgy that is magnetically read inside the computer at the back of the room, converting to a video signal that is routed to a project high above so that it can cast a pattern of shadow and light upon the screen in front, all under the control of someone at the keyboard or using a mouse to click through the screens.  A system with many links and no redundancy is more prone to failure.  When the screen is not advanced to the next verse of a song at the right moment as the music proceeds, we all stumble – sometimes even when I actually know the song by heart, I cannot quickly enough come up with the words because of the distraction of wondering what is going wrong because the screen seems to have frozen forever while the song marches on.  A similar disruption can detract from our worship when the microphone for the worship leader does not work.  This seems to be even more common for wireless versions (which need fresh batteries, need a proper radio signal, require the user to remember to switch it on, require the sound board person to route the signal to the speakers properly, and more).  We have often designed our worship spaces so that they are dependent on sound amplification in order for all to hear.  When it fails, our worship falters.  Technology does not need to be complicated to distract.  Even a clock on the wall can prevent us from fully engaging in the worship conversation.

My solution to these problems is not to throw out the technology, at least not necessarily.  First, it seems to me that we should carefully consider each proposed technological addition to be sure it truly will aid us in worship, that it will effectively enhance our worship.  If so, then we must also consider the possible failure modes and how we will handle it.  If we have a substitute microphone handy that can be quickly swapped if batteries die, then the technology stays mainly in the background with only a momentary blip to correct for a failure.  If the song leader is flexible, they can quickly adapt to a Powerpoint failure and transition to a familiar chorus that the congregation knows by heart.  As we plan our worship, let us consider how each activity, each action, and how each technology can lead to a deeper conversation, a more engaging dialog, higher praise, and more spirit-filled worship of our God.




Wednesday, April 07, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

In his 2010 report to the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the American Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, took the surprising step of elevating cyber attacks to the number one position in his annual assessment of threats to US national security threats, putting it even above terrorism.  In the opening lines of his report , he characterizes our vulnerability to cyber-attacks:  “The national security of the United States, our economic prosperity, and the daily functioning of our government are dependent on a dynamic public and private information infrastructure, which includes telecommunications, computer networks and systems, and the information residing within. This critical infrastructure is severely threatened.”

Most of us use the Internet heavily for a variety of purposes:  information gathering, connecting with friends, sharing data with a colleague, shopping, managing our finances, and so forth.  For much of that activity, we are depending on reliable, secure communication.  It is critical that our personal data, such as a credit card number, remains confidential, so that a malicious person somewhere on the line cannot swipe it.  It is critical that someone else cannot impersonate us, stealing our identity on-line.  Encryption technology provides us with that security.  But it is not fool-proof.  We can learn a lesson from the story of the Enigma code that the German military used in World War II.  The Nazi soldiers regularly communicated important war plans with each other using this code, which they thought was keeping the communication secret.  But the code had actually been broken, so that the Allies could decipher the messages, allowing them to eavesdrop on the enemy.  We must guard against overconfidence in our security today as well.  Our messages may have been compromised without our knowing.

The perceived security of Internet communication can also give a sense of anonymity (though this is often a false sense as well).  Anonymity can provide some benefits, but it can also tempt us in a number of ways.  We can use anonymity to avoid annoying return sales emails when visiting a shopping website or to blow the whistle on an illegal or unethical practice without suffering repercussions.  However, we can also use anonymity to make false accusations without accountability, or to obtain music or software without paying for it even if the artist expects it, or to view pornography without anyone finding out.  Anonymity bypasses accountability.  It lets us indulge our sinful natures without getting caught.  Of course we are all ultimately accountable to our Creator, but what about more immediate accountability?  Usually our closest friends and associates can help keep us accountable because they have the most access to our personal lives.  Our intimate friendships should help us lead a life of integrity.  But if we use the power of private communication that the Internet and encryption provide, we hide that aspect of our lives from our friends and loved ones, bypassing the natural lines of accountability we would otherwise have to keep us on the straight and narrow.  Just like showing ones checkbook to a friend to demonstrate real financial stewardship, or showing one’s calendar to a colleague for a double-check of one’s priorities, providing some transparency in Internet use might be a good thing.  Transparency could be keeping one’s computer screen at work clearly visible to co-workers.  It could be a teenager friending a parent on facebook so that Mom or Dad can check up (without ever leaving a comment that could embarrass them with their “real” friends, of course). 

This same sort of credit and debit accounting of benefits and hazards applies not only at the personal level, but also for society more broadly too.  Corporations, banks, even nations depend on secure electronic communications in support of good and even noble goals.  But that same secrecy can cover criminal activity or harbor terrorist messages.  Technology used to make war is often a back and forth of development to give one side an edge over the other.  Technological developments often determine the victor, changing the course of history in the process.  The casualties of war have mounted higher and higher as we have found more effective ways to kill one another.  Isn’t it unfortunate that humanity has made leaps in technology often through military means?  I am not advocating pacifism here – I do believe governments are armed with the sword, but such a powerful tool must be used carefully, in the cause of justice. Perhaps we can also see God’s grace in the peaceful uses we have later found for certain military technologies.  Perhaps that in some small way is how we can beat at least some of our swords into plowshares.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest