No Digital Forgiveness

Monday, July 26, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

One warm summer when I was quite young, I attended a Vacation Bible School at a nearby church.  I remember very little of the activities except that it was really hot and I recall one demonstration.  The leader asked one of the kids to come forward and help him.  He had the child squeeze out all the toothpaste from a tube on to a paper plate.  When that job was finished, he turned back to the child and asked: “OK, now put it all back in.”  Of course everyone laughed at the surprised expression of the flustered volunteer, because we all knew once it was out, it was impossible to get back in.  He went on to make the point that once you say something hurtful or wrong, you cannot take it back. 

The digital age has made more of our actions like toothpaste.  Consider the story of Stacy Snyder, “…a 25-year-old teacher in training … [who] posted a photo on her MySpace page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption ‘Drunken Pirate.’ [The university] said she was promoting drinking in virtual view of her under-age students. As a result, … the university denied her a teaching degree.”  Jeffrey Rosen, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” New York Times “Tech Update”, 19 July 2010 .

Someone has said that one’s true character is revealed not by what one does in public, but by what one does when no one is looking.  When others are watching, we often put on a show, acting “good” for the sake of those watching, not because of any internal compulsion.  When in private, the true self comes forth.  Many a politician has been caught in this act – clean spoken in every speech, but spewing obscenities while unaware that a nearby open microphone is catching it all.  Even before our lives became digital, mother taught us the common sense that you can’t judge a book by its covers.  Good character is not just about creating the perception that one has integrity; it is about living out the reality. 

Even when we do something wrong, we usually can live down the faux pas over time.  Our human sense of time is fleeting.  Memories fade and time heals wounds.  People change and the times change.  As we grow older, we accumulate memories, but some ideas fade and our lives run past quickly.  Indeed, our lives are short.  “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14, NIV)  Time is perhaps the most mysterious of God’s creations, but it is part of the created order and God is not subject to its whims:  “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4, NIV)

But technology has enhanced our collective memory.  One of our earliest technologies (perhaps after the mythical discovery of fire and invention of the wheel) is writing.  Written language was seen as an aid to memory (though Plato thought it would ruin our memorization skills ( Plato, Phaedrus, 275a-b ).  Digitized pictures, sounds, video, and text extend our ability to remember.  Perhaps permanent digitized records give us a sense of the long view of the divine.  Digital images and sounds can be perfectly preserved, copied without degradation, and often enhanced beyond what our ordinary senses can capture and remember.  Minute details are encapsulated in easily retrieved electronic files.  In a digitized world, with sensors, microphones, and cameras recording us from every angle, our every misstep might be suddenly memorialized for all time.  Perhaps this also gives a sense of eternity, for our every act is scribed: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.”  (Revelation 20:12, NIV)  However, in an awesome act of grace, God chooses to wipe the slate clean for his chosen people:  “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34, NIV).  Even if there is no digital forgiveness, even if we cannot remove the stain of our improprieties from the long-remembering Internet, even so, “…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12, NIV)

Robot Refs

Saturday, July 17, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

With a last name like “van der Leest”, of course I was cheering for the Netherlands to win the World Cup.  What an incredible final game between two incredible teams!  It was delightful to watch the fantastic athletic ability, the artistry of the game, and the enthusiasm of the crowd.  My son had friends over to watch the event and we could hear oohs and ahs, cheers and groans, as they watched the game progress. 

The technology that let us all participate in the audience and get a closer view that those sitting in the stadium itself was amazing too.  There were cameras on the side, cameras in the net, cameras scooting above the field.  Each recording a different angle, providing images with a variety of aspects.    [Jason Dachman, “World Cup 2010: Camera Corps’ Net-Cam Captures Prime Angle of England’s Disallowed Goal,” Sports Video Group,  1 July 2010]

High definition video was beamed around the world to an estimated 700 million people watching at least one of the World Cup games on television (HD or not).  We got to see the astounding moves and plays live (at least within milliseconds of “live”  by the time it reached us) and then again in replay.  With such frame-by-frame precision and review after the fact, it is no wonder many viewers in hindsight denounced some questionable calls by referees. 

Human judges of the game make mistakes, but the camera never lies.  Or does it?  The referee on the field sometimes has an angle that no camera can catch.  The ref not only sees, but hears the action (at least if they can hear anything over the mutter of thousands of vuvuzelas).  But we can add directional microphones to pick up audio too.  Whatever the human can do, technology can mimic and go one better. Or can it? 

The World Cup is a good case study of the interplay of human and technological prowess.  Even though an Italian Ferrari is faster than the Dutch Arjen Robben and a Spanish cannon could fire a soccer ball past the goalie faster than the Spanish David Villa could, we wouldn’t dream of replacing human players with robots or other technology.  There would be no point in watching the game then.  Why is that we are willing to accept human shortcomings and celebrate human achievements in the players, but not as willing to accept mistakes by game officials?  After some admittedly very bad calls, some turned to technology as a way to rescue the game:  “FIFA deplores ‘when you see the evidence of refereeing mistakes’ and it would be ‘nonsense’ not to consider changes, Blatter said Tuesday. He added the only principle up for discussion is goal-line technology.” [Mike Foss, “Bad calls at World Cup prompt FIFA to study high-tech ref help,” USA Today,  2 July 2010] .  Certainly a post-play review of a goal shot by multiple camera angles (and perhaps with a little technology sprinkled right into the ball so that we know its precise position millisecond by millisecond) would provide a more detailed picture of the game.  But would that make the game better?  If we stopped after each minute of play to spend five minutes carefully analyzing each movement for possible violations, the momentum and action would be seriously compromised, making the game much less exciting. 

Adding technology to fix one problem can also add unforeseen consequences that cause new problems.  For example,  “one critic sees replay’s disadvantages. ‘Not all countries will be able to afford the cost,’ says Fernando Fiore, an analyst for Univision. ‘Soccer is too fast. You need more officials overseeing the game.’” [Foss] .  Thus technology can become a matter of justice – while it might enhance the justice of the officiating in one game, it might also create injustice between games and between nations by separating the “haves” and the “have-nots”.  Technological injustice is not inevitable however.  If we conscientiously examine the design and deployment of technological products, we can identify many of the issues ahead of time and account for them.  For example, if extra technology is fielded to provide more precise evaluation of game play, it could be done on an even-handed basis, perhaps only games from the Round of 16 to the final game.  Every game before that, regardless of location or team origin is played without the technology and every game after with it.  That provides a more even playing field for all.


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Anthropomorphizing technology – suggesting human characteristics for non-human technological products – is a common pastime.  We attribute motives to our gadgets, particularly malicious intent when our gadgets repeatedly fail at the most inauspicious times.  We sometimes slip in a personal pronoun for a device. Our technology is often so advanced and complex that the ordinary user has very little clue about its inner workings.  Arthur C. Clarke’s third “law” reflects this idea: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Even so, I doubt that anyone actually believes that the technology is truly sentient.  Rather, we joke about its seemingly human behavior, knowing full well that the computer, automobile, and space shuttle are all simply objects with no ability to act on their own, though they are sufficiently complex that we cannot always predict their behavior.  There may be an added benefit to this humorous approach to our technology.  Humor about technology can be a comfort because it recognizes that we share a common experience – who hasn’t lost something important when a computer crashed on them? 

I would like to see technology help us share experiences and improve human relationships more often, but not just centered on technological failures.  This would honor the design norm of integrity.  This is the principle that a technology design ought to harmonize function and form, ought to integrate all the parts into an aesthetic whole, and ought to promote positive human relationships.  Where technology brings people together, encourages peaceful interaction, brings out the best of what makes us human, then it observes the principle of integrity.  One example would be collaborative document technologies that allow multiple users to edit a document simultaneously (though I think these product are still in their infancy, and I expect many improvements yet). 

To “technopomorphize”, if that were actually a word, would refer to the use of technical analogies to understand human concepts and relationships.  Our daily language is full of them:  “switching gears”, “like clockwork”, “grease the skids”, “turn the crank”, “pull the plug”.  “really pushed his buttons”, “need to wind down”.  We use these as symbols to explain our own and others behavior.  When understood as a simplification, as an abstraction in order to communicate succinctly, these analogies can be helpful.  They reflect our God-given and God-reflecting character as tool makers and tool users.  When mistaken to be the behavior itself rather than a symbol or analogy, then I think we do ourselves and our fellow humans an injustice.  Trying to understand the human brain by comparing it to a computer can be a helpful approach; implying that the human brain is simply a biological computer, no more, leaves out the nuance and beauty, the mystery and complexity and soul of the human creature.  Yes, you can push my buttons, but my output is not deterministically dependent on those inputs.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest