Humility in Technology

Thursday, October 28, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Technology forms an interesting bridge between humans and the rest of creation.  Technology is the set of products and processes that result from human creative activity,  fabricated from natural and artificial materials, often using rather sophisticated tools.  The best of technology solves real human problems effectively and elegantly.  Humans are sometimes characterized as homo faber , i.e., humans as tool-makers.  I think this reflects our calling in Genesis 1:28 to develop and unfold the creation.  Technology is a prime way that we fulfill that cultural mandate, binding us to the Creator and the rest of his creation in an intimate relationship. 

In my last blog entry I shared some of my thinking and questions about how sin and the Fall affect creation and specifically technology. As finite beings created by God we are “creatures” that are part of the creation; we have limits.  Although our creator is all-knowing and all-powerful, God made us with limitations to our knowledge and our power.  Even before human’s fall into sin, Adam and Eve were not unbounded in ability and power.  As fallen beings, sin taints our behavior and without God’s grace we would be hopelessly lost.  Sin has corrupted all of us, darkening every heart and twisting the Creator’s intended good.  Put finiteness and fallenness together and it makes me realize our need for humility. 

Technology too easily blinds us to our limitations.  It quickly tempts us with vast knowledge and power.  We live under the illusion that with its aid we know much and can do much.  While we might not be so deluded to believe we are all-knowing or all-powerful, we may yet become unduly proud of our own abilities.  In fact some would say that the original sin was pride:  our first parents choosing to disobey in order to become wise like God.  Technology also lulls us into complacency.  Because it reliably produces correct answers time after time, we come to believe it is infallible.  However, that accuracy is often only under a certain set of circumstances.  When the system ventures outside of those bounds, it fails – and we are often shocked when it happens. I am surprised how quickly we trust in technology despite its failings.  Even after hearing horrific stories of failures, we too quickly fall back into blind dependence. 

Thus, it seems to me that a little humility in technology is in order.  We should build a humble assessment of our products into every stage of technology development:  the initial idea and requirements, design, fabrication, distribution, sale, field use, and disposal.  Every one of us participates in at least a couple of those stages via all our technical gadgets at home and at work.  Every one of us could perhaps take a step back to find a more modest approach with our technology. Recognizing their own limitations, technology designers could insist on review by objective, unbiased peers who are competent to spot errors or conflicts of interest. Recognizing their own limitations, technology users could take care to use devices as they were intended and respect safety features rather than bypassing them. 

Not only can we build humility into our personal and profession behavior, we can also build it into our technology itself.  For example, even if our engineering models indicate our design will never experience a certain high temperature, we might include a warning system that alerts the user if we ever reach that temperature (which indicates something is amiss that we did not anticipate).  We can build safety-critical systems that have redundant components so that individual failures can be tolerated without causing system failure.  Even when we feel certain nothing can go wrong, we should build in back-up support or plan for graceful failure (where the failure results in a safe position, even if not fully functional).  Engineers should insist on thorough testing of systems before they go into the field (especially for systems where lives are in the balance). Testers should be sure to verify (did we develop the thing right?) and validate (did we develop the right thing?).  Let’s also be careful about “crying wolf”.  If our technology frequently issues warnings for trivial events, then we will start ignoring the warnings and pay the consequences when the warning is for something more substantial.  Thus we must take human psychology into account when thinking about how best to prevent problems.

Humility is one virtue of several that I think are useful to pursue while we develop technology.  I mentioned another, Transparency, in an April blog entry:  “Transparent Technology” .  The 1986 book Responsible Technology (edited by Stephen Monsma) proposed a set of design norms (guidelines akin to virtues) that included cultural appropriateness , stewardship, justice, caring, and more.  The book is now out of print, but you can probably pick it up used, or read it on-line in Google books .  Chapter 9 covers design norms.

Failure:  Fallen or Finite?

Friday, October 15, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Does metal always fail when we pull it apart with enough force?  In our human experience, yes.  Is this inevitable failure a result of the fall – a dramatic demonstration of the power of sin and the groaning of creation?  Or is it instead inherent in the original creation – an intrinsic property of the good world that God granted us?  Maybe it isn’t a failure at all.  Maybe metal bars are supposed to break in two if you pull hard on the ends. 

I’ve sometimes heard shalom described as “the way things ought to be” as some reflection of the good in original creation or the good in the coming new heavens and new earth.  But I’m having trouble teasing out how this applies to the physical materials we have in the creation around us.

I think there is probably a difference between fall (effects due to the sinful state of man) and finiteness (limitations because we are creatures).  I am guessing that it is important to recognize these two as distinct because we are called to fight the former but accept the latter.  In fact, if we do not accept our limitations as creatures (i.e., created beings that were “made” as part of the creation), then we have fallen into the sin of pride (thinking more of ourselves than we ought) or perhaps negligence (omitting appropriate care and understanding to work within one’s competence).

So are there defects in the physical world that are the result of sin?  Were stones stronger before the fall?  Did wood have knots in it before the fall?  Could sand have been formed into better silicon wafers with a perfect crystalline structure before sin came into the world?  Was iron lighter and resisted oxidation (rusting) before Eve and Adam ate the apple?

Most of the Biblical language I can identify regarding sin and the Fall applies most directly to humans.  But Romans 8:20-21 seems to speak to the effects of sin on the rest of creation.  Here it is in two different translations:

  • For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (R). Copyright (c) 1973, 1978, 1984 Biblica. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.)
  • For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. (Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE (R), Copyright (c) 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.)

It seems that this passage is telling us about how sin has affected all of creation.  But it is hard for me to identify what that evil effect is (compared to the intrinsic and good properties intended by the Creator).  What seems bad to me in one sense is good in another sense.  For example, I might desire a very strong sheet of metal.  But I don’t want it so strong that I cannot cut a sheet of it into a desired shape or then bend it into a form.  I must admit that I have always been a bit frustrated that the Genesis account of creation is so short.  I wish I knew more about what God intended.  When he declared the creation to be good, I wonder what changed after the fall.  I wish my vision were not so clouded so that it is so hard to know what is good (and of course that is largely the effect of sin on my own thinking, but perhaps also partly my finiteness).  The vision of the new heavens and the new earth at the end of Revelations is also tantalizing yet very brief.  My entry this week is thus probably not very satisfying – I have lots of questions and few answers.  But I hope it is food for thought!


Technology-Free Zone

Saturday, October 09, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Frans van Liere, a colleague of mine at Calvin who teaches history, recently noticed too many students “checking out” during class by using their music players or texting or tweeting.  He then declared his classroom a “technology-free zone”.  He mentioned this in a posting on the internal discussion email list for faculty and staff.  He gave me permission to quote our exchange in my blog. 

Frans said:

This semester for the first time I have emphasized that while I laud the use of technology in furthering one’s education (I use Moodle, after all), I want to make the class room a technology-free zone. I requested them not to use cell phone, ipods, laptops, and the like, while in the class room. I must say that my request worked very well, and students are very cooperative. It makes for a much more attentive and actively engaged class.

Steve said:

Frans: I know that you are no Luddite when it comes to technology, but I do want to take issue (cordially, I hope) with your label of “technology-free”.  I think you mean certain specific technologies that distract students from fully engaging in learning in your class.  If you really want to remove all technology from your classroom, it will take much more than banning iPods. 

Technology has been with us from the beginning (I believe technology development is part of the Genesis cultural mandate).  Let’s start with the obvious – your own computer and projector certainly are technology (though perhaps you don’t use those in the classroom).  But don’t stop there!  The class textbook is thanks to Gutenberg’s technology, so back to scrolls (hmm… even papyrus is a technology, I think).  The electric lights are due to Edison, so lights out please.  The chairs and desks are engineered as well, so the class will need to stand.  A variety of chemical engineers, technologists, and craftsmen produced the technology in the carpet, tiles, chalkboard/whiteboard, chalk/markers, and even most of your clothing.  Disrobing might be a problem not only for vanity’s sake, but also because you’ll need to forgo technologically produced temperature control as well.  Surely not all those technologies must be eliminated.  Even if we do eliminate all those physical artifacts, I suspect the content of your lectures would be a bit less interesting if you could not explore the technological developments that have often driven major historical events and trends.

Perhaps what you intended was more appropriate use of technology.  That is, we should observe proper uses of our devices while avoiding certain abuses.  Even carefully designed gadgets can have unintended consequences because of our finite capabilities but also because of our fallen state.  Technology reflects the designer and the audience in many ways, so the iPod is rather biased towards insular, individualistic activities that are not readily employed for communal activities such as classroom learning.  Thus I am sympathetic to your ban on certain technologies, but I also suggest that your censorship is not quite as universal as your label implied. 

Frans said:

I’m afraid you’re preaching to the choir. I teach an interim course on the “technology” of the medieval book every other year. As you say, books are a form of information technology. The hypertext with clickable links was really invented in the twelfth century, as probably you are aware. And I did mean to say that I ban the use of distracting computer technology in the class room.

But it is interesting that we often use the term “technology” in a much more narrow sense, to mean computer technology. But in the broader sense, Hekman library is really CIT, isn’t it?

[Note that Hekman library is the main library on Calvin’s campus, carrying physical books on the shelf.  CIT is Calvin Information Technology, our computer services department.]

I love the allusion Frans makes to the physical books as information technology.  It helps us catch a better glimpse of the sweep of history, which we too often ignore, thinking that the latest technology wipes away all earlier forms.  In reality, most technology builds on and expands previous technology.  We can better understand the appropriate use of new technologies, employing them to our best benefit, by paying attention to the lessons history has to offer us about the predecessors of our latest gadgets.




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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest