Technology is the Trouble

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Any concept used in an instrumental way (as a tool) will potentially lend itself to abuse.  Government legislation, video advertisements, confidential information regarding someone’s weekly schedule, acting ability – they all can be used as means to inappropriate ends.  Technology is by definition a tool, an instrument, a means to an end.  I have argued in past blogs that our technological tools are not neutral; that our instruments have a built-in bias that encourages certain uses over others.  Because technology is not neutral, tech designers, manufacturers, and distributors have some responsibility in the care and keeping of these products and how they are used.

However, this non-neutrality of technology does not relieve the user of responsibility.  We are responsible for the consequences of our actions.  Technology may suggest certain actions (like a hammer suggests pounding) and may amplify our actions (like a hammer amplifies the force of our arm or a microphone amplifies the audible volume of our voice).  Despite this, or perhaps because of this, we must be careful with technology and are accountable for the results. 

Lately I have come across a number of commentaries on technology that all share a common theme – that our technology is causing trouble.  In two consecutive issues of the Reformed journal Perspectives, technology was the root of the problem.  In November, it was Facebook, which “promises relationships and connections to friends:  but Michener says “I think it is deceiving us.”.  (Ronald T. Michener, “The Facelessness of Facebook:  A Few Lessons from Levinas,” Perspectives, v.25, n.4, Nov 2010)  How so?  He believes it can be a poor substitute:  “some join Facebook as a way to keep in touch with friends suffering from illness…Unfortunately, many end up substituting the impulsive twitter chatter of Facebook for compassionate phone calls or personal correspondence.”  Michener believes that digital messaging is more impulsive than compassionate because “communication theorists tell us that a great percentage of our communication takes place non-verbally through intentional expressions and unintentional micro-expressions.  I wonder how much of ourselves (and our faces) we are actually losing in our plethora of virtual friendships on Facebook.”  He conditions his condemnation just a bit before taking one more swipe against technology once more:  “It’s not that I think using Facebook is a sin or some kind of device of the devil.  But it is a tool that seems to promise something it will never be capable of fulfilling…I fear it is depersonalizing us with everyone’s mundane narcissism and luring us in towards an illicit desire for things completely other than personal.”  In December, it was the web (and more specifically Google), which “has made us less informed, even sometimes flat out more ignorant.  Or perhaps better said:  it’s not that the internet has made people more ignorant as it has provided comfort and aid (and cover) to those who wish to remain entrenched in their beliefs” (Scott Hoezee, “Thus Saith Google,” Perspectives, v.25, n10, Dec 2010)  Hoezee sees too many people using information they find through the Google search engine as if it were confirmed fact, in order to bolster their own arguments. “For some, that web presence is itself more than sufficient cause to cling to the disputed ‘fact’ and even defend it…because it propped up someone’s larger worldview – there is not ‘fact’ so compelling as a convenient fact.”  He goes on to compare websites with false prophets.

The Atlantic was at it too.  The December issue bemoans online dating because of the “algorithmic perversity that’s creeping into our lives…  Statistically likely does not mean correct, or just, or fair.” (Alexis Madrigal, “Take the Data out of Dating,”, The Atlantic, December 2010, p. 37.)  Technology is the trouble once more, limiting our choices of future dates (and future mates) by filtering the candidates we consider. 

Technology is at the root of our troubles?  I don’t buy it.  The sins that we can commit with technology are nothing new under the sun. The same evils of greed, pride, anger, and lust that have plagued humankind since the fall continue to show up with technology.  Identity thieves who swipe a credit card number off the web and use it to steal are simply high-tech pickpockets.  The wayward husband who starts an Internet affair is simply a high-tech adulterer.  The braggart who posts all their great accomplishments on their Facebook profile is simply committing a high-tech version of the old-fashioned sin of pride. 

At most we simply create new twists on old temptations with technology.  It is true that technology may amplify the impact of our poor choices, but the root cause of the problem is not technology, but the humans behind the technology.  Is technology the trouble?  No.  Is it dangerous in the hands of ordinary mortals?  Yes.  Just as one ought not put a circular saw in the hands of a four-year old (and certainly not while it was running),  likewise one ought not put unfiltered and unmonitored Internet access in those same hands.  Nor should we put an automobile in the hands of an untrained teen driver.  Nor should we put a nuclear weapon in the hands of an unstable government – and perhaps there are no hands mature enough to handle such a powerful technology (I tend to think this is so).

I think this issue is parallel to how C.S. Lewis sees the utility and danger of schooling: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.“ (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man ).  It reminds me of a recent comparison of C.S. Lewis to the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, an article that makes the key point that science (and technology too, I believe) can easily persuade us to see our fellow human beings themselves as objects, means, and instruments – rather than as people made in God’s image.  Rozema writes “…it is the rejection of any transcendent moral principles that opens the door to this hunger [for power over others] and feeds it.  But this denial of moral principles is the logically necessary consequence of seeing man as an object of scientific study.  Insofar as human beings are studied under the rubric of science, individual persons and particular societies are seen as natural phenomena.”  (David Rozema “Inside-out or Outside-in?  Lewis and Dostoevsky on the ‘New Man’,” Christian Scholar’s Review, v.40, n.2, Winter 2011).  He goes on to diagnose this perverse ailment of science:  “Thus, the scientific approach to the study of Man provokes an ‘outside-in’ view of others – looking for causal explanations for human behavior.  But when persons are reduced to natural objects…and the moral principles by which they live are reduced to mere phenomena, the implication is that the researcher, the social scientist, has transcended the merely human; gone beyond good and evil; disassociated himself – more or less intentionally – from his fellow men.  The logical result of this outside-in viewpoint is moral relativism (at least) or nihilism (at last).” Rozema,  p. 181.

Technology is a powerful tool and thus dangerous in our frail hands.  Dangerous if the tool becomes the teacher that convinces us everything and everyone is a tool.  Dangerous if the means becomes the master that persuades us everything and everyone is a means.  Dangerous if the instrument becomes the ideal, inducing us to see pure utility as perfection.  “The great majority of economists is still pursuing the absurd ideal of making their ‘science’ as scientific and precise as physics, as if there were no qualitative difference between mindless atoms and men made in the image of God.” (E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, New York: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 49.)  As stewards of the earth—image-bearers given creative minds to tend and cultivate the garden of creation with the use of tools—we forget our place if we ourselves are also clay in the hands of the ultimate potter.  Pure utility is only perfection when that utility is not simply an expression of our own will, but when our will is itself an instrument in accordance with God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will. 

Listservs, Censorship, Freedom, and Toothpaste

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

It is the same innocent mistake, repeated time after time.  Usually the offender is so embarrassed or the fallout so significant that they never make the mistake again.  Even so, it isn’t long before someone else repeats the same mistake.  Oops – there goes someone else, accidentally posting a private message to the whole listserv by accident.  When the message contains a testy critique, reveals confidential details, or otherwise stirs the pot, be ready for an explosion! 

Technology tends to amplify our human abilities – the hammer extends the power of the arm, the telescope extends the view of the eye.  That power should be used with care, since we are finite and fallen humans:  we can pound nails better with that hammer, but we can also maim or kill with it.  But that is not to say our technology is neutral.  Our choice of technology tends to bias us in certain ways.  We tend to pound with hammers, tend to paint with brushes.  Some might think that perhaps the power of listservs is too great for us to handle, with its vast distribution to far-flung readers at the click of a button.  Perhaps we should intentionally select a community communication mechanism that is more limited.  On the other hand, the amplifying power of this technology enables freedom of speech, especially for those that are outside the circles of power.  The ability to communicate to all our friends, colleagues, or neighbors without censorship has great potential for good and for justice.  Although we must admit that there may also be some injustice if some of our neighbors do not have the requisite technology of a computer and an Internet connection.

The responsible use of technology is a healthy conversation for us to have occasionally, even if we only consider it in the face of unintended consequences.  In the case of a listserv that just experienced the equivalent of a politician rudely joking under his breath to a someone nearby without realizing an open microphone is nearby (thus broadcasting to many what was intended to be private), how do we preserve the immediacy and free access of listservs while also protecting ourselves from our own foibles?  One solution is a moderated list, where a human moderator acts as the gateway, hopefully catching mistaken messages and preventing their distribution.  Some web-based forums allow a message to be posted but also provide the capability to retract a posting.  But that does not completely solve the issue either.  Once you post something, someone else can grab a copy before you have retracted it.  As many Facebook users have discovered, once that somewhat embarrassing photo has been posted, no matter how fast you take it down, it likely has been replicated beyond your ability to eradicate it. 

As a little thought experiment, perhaps a simpler approach would be a delayed send.  I can already self-police myself by never hitting the send button without reviewing my email and confirming the TO: list is right.  If I find that I sometimes still make mistakes, I can use an email client that purposely holds my outgoing email for a minute or two, giving me a chance to cancel it before it really transmits beyond my ability to stop it.  For something as danger-prone as a widely-read listserv, perhaps a two-step process would be helpful. The first email to the list would be returned to the sender with the query “are you sure you really want to send this to everyone?”  A reply to that email then automatically posts it to the real list.  Of course a regular on the listserv might get in the habit of quickly hitting return, so we have a bit of a technology cold-war to overcome our own bad habits.  One could for the response to be distinctive in some way each time, forcing the user to think a bit more, but also making the listserv more annoying in the process.

I’m reminded of one of the earliest lessons I can remember from attending Vacation Bible School when I was quite young.  The leader asked a student to come up front and squeeze out some toothpaste on to a plate.  Then he said: “Good job!  Now for your second task, I’d like you to put it back in.”  We all laughed at the astonished look of the kid up front who put up his hands in despair and exclaimed, “I can’t!”  From that little demonstration the leader taught us a lesson from James 3, that the words we speak are just like toothpaste:  easy to get out, but hard to take back. 

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest