Appropriate Technology

Thursday, March 31, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Engineering products so that the technology is a good fit for the customer is good business practice and wise design.  The field of “Appropriate Technology” has a particular focus on this fit, especially for customers in developing countries where high-tech might not be the best solution.

Technology is a cultural artifact – that is the creation and introduction of technology into a society is a cultural activity that extends the existing culture.  The new culture introduced by novel technologies can also be a culture destroyer as it displaces older technologies (and thus displaces existing culture).  For example, certain social activities revolving around family dinnertime together began to disappear or erode with the introduction of the microwave oven, which made it easier to prepare meals on an individual rather than family basis.  Certain social activities revolving around telephone landlines have started to disappear with the advent and subsequent ubiquitous use of cell phones – one no longer calls the family home and asks for the individual; one calls the individual directly (and thus misses the serendipitous opening conversation with other members of the family).

Appropriate technology requires the engineer to consider the stakeholders carefully, ensuring that introduction of the new technology does not disrupt their way of life.  Technologies are evaluated to avoid products that potentially break down societal structures, erode community values, or shift societal values.  Western world thinking tends to fix most problems with technology – even problems caused by technology.  Appropriate technology does not throw out technology altogether in response, but rather takes a more cautious view, focusing on the simplest way to solve a problem, one that fits best in the community where it will be introduced.  So use of local materials is preferred over far-flung supplies that must be shipped in.  Tools that aid local labor are preferred over those that replace human labor.  Products that work on their own are preferred over those that require an extensive support infrastructure. 

This is not to say that appropriate technology cannot ever be high-tech or cutting edge.  Consider that in many developing countries, such as Bangladesh, the communities have completely skipped over landline telephone communication infrastructure and have rapidly adopted cell phone communication.  Unlike western societies where every individual has a mobile phone, in many cases businesses have sprung up that have one phone for a village that is rented out inexpensively to anyone in the community that wishes to make a call. 

In our senior engineering design project course at Calvin, we ask students to consider the design norm of “cultural appropriateness” as one of their guiding principles.  In many cases this leads teams designing for foreign locations to rather different designs than if they simply developed the product as if it would be fielded in the US.  Cultural alignment is just one of many norms that can guide technology development.  Check out some of my earlier blogs on norms such as humility, transparency, or justice.

From Garden to City

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

The creation story of Genesis gives us a hint of the original good of creation, describing the original paradise as a garden.  But we get only 56 verses before the fall occurs in Genesis 3.  The remaining 31,000+ verses describe the battle between good and evil, telling the story of fall and redemption.  The end of history is described in Revelations not as a garden, but as a city.  Revelations 21 and 22 tell of the new Jerusalem, a beautiful city with foundation, walls, and gates fabricated from incredible, exotic materials.  The city is not isolated from nature, but rather has a river running right down the middle with the tree of life on each side (hmm… how can one tree be on both sides of a river?  I’m anxious to see that!)

I see this contrast as a hint that the creation act was not a one-time, static production, as if the creation were a sculpture.  Rather, the creation is an ongoing dynamic process, as if it were a dramatic play.  I also believe we are called to be actors in this play, unfolding the creation as its stewards.  Like the servants given talents in the parable, God expects us to develop the gifts he has given us – to develop the skills and knowledge we possess individually and to develop the resources and riches of the creation around us – both to his glory.  Technological development is a major component of this calling, thus we see a city as a central part of the new heavens and the new earth.  We are given hints in a number of places in scripture that one of God’s gifts to humanity (a part of our reflection of the Creator because we are image-bearers) is the gift of technology development.  We have creative ability to take raw materials and weave them together into something new and useful.  In fact God even granted a special measure of his spirit for this type of creative craftsmanship.  Bezalel was, in a sense, an early engineer developing the Tabernacle:

Then the LORD said to Moses,  “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah,  and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze,  to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.  Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded you:  the Tent of Meeting, the ark of the Testimony with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent—the table and its articles, the pure gold lampstand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, the basin with its stand—and also the woven garments, both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests, and the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the Holy Place. They are to make them just as I commanded you.”

(Exodus 31:1-11, NIV)

As a child I typically found these types of long lists in the Bible to be utterly boring.  But now I’m taking a second look at this one.  This is a list of technology!  Each item is simple enough, but together they form an ensemble design that points to God.  Too often we design and use our technology with cruder intentions and base desires.  Let’s seek out the potential for true beauty, nobility, and purity in our development of the creation around us, so that the works of our hands are pleasing to God.

Instruments of Grace

Monday, March 07, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest


The Israelites complained – a lot!  It seems like they were always getting into trouble with God.  They were fickle, frequently looking for something better, constantly distracted by the latest gods across the border.  An early episode of this whining is retold in Numbers 21.  They are impatient with the progress of their journey from Egypt.  The consequences come quickly – God send venomous snakes among them.  When the people finally come to their senses and repent, God’s answer is very strange.  He has Moses fabricate bronze into the form of a snake and hang it on a pole.  People who looked at the fake snake on a stick are saved. 

We don’t find out until the gospel of John what this strange miracle is really all about:  “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:14-15)  So Jesus is like the snake, lifted up on the pole of the cross in order to save the people.  Of course you know the famous verse in John that comes right after this.  God gave his only son for this very purpose, that we won’t die from the snakebites of sin.  I’m not sure why God had Moses make a bronze snake as the symbol of healing, but somehow I think it is connected with why Jesus must be not only divine, but also human, so that as a fellow-human he could satisfy the demands of God’s justice and as God he could serve in the place of all humanity (whereas a sinner could only stand for himself).  So it is that we look up to a human (and yet divine) form on the cross, and by our belief in Christ we are saved from the death of sin.

Moses used an unusual shape (a snake, the very source of their problems!), but also an interesting material – bronze, which is not a naturally occurring mineral but rather a human invention, an alloy of copper and tin.  Perhaps this is an allusion to the dual nature of Jesus, but I find it is also an interesting connection to technology.  There is one other place where the bronze snake is mentioned – King Hezekiah “broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it.” (2 Kings 18:4, NIV).  Apparently the Israelites mistook the bronze snake as the actual source of grace rather than a symbol of that grace.  This wasn’t the first time either (they also worshipped a golden calf when Moses was a little tardy coming back from his trip up the mountain.)

I believe the technological gadgets of our day can quickly become our own version of the golden calf, our own bronze snake.  When our medical devices apparently save us from disease, when our smart phones miraculously connect us to a world of people and information, when our HVAC transparently keeps us comfortable, we are in danger of mistaking these devices as the source of grace, rather than simply an instrument through which God shows us his grace.  These tools are particularly attractive idols because we know how they work and believe that through them we are wholly responsible for the good that they produce.  However, they are still idols if we put them in place of God.
It may be helpful to think of technological instruments in the way we think of musical instruments.  Music can be a means to worshipping God.  Yes, we produce the instrument and we play the instrument, but the music can serve as a means for us to recognize God’s grace, as a means to praise God, as a means to express thanks to God.  Likewise, our technological instruments can also be produced and “played” as praise, worship, and thanks to God. 

VanPoolen explored this idea of playing technology:  “This could be extended to the performance of an engineering drawing for a technological thing. What results from playing these texts is the machine. The performance takes place in the manufacturing place and in our culture where the artifact is put to use.” Van Poolen, Lambert, “Towards a Christian Theory of Technological Things,” Christian Scholar’s Review, v33, n3, Spring 2004, pp. 373.)  While VanPoolen focuses mainly on technology performance as the manufacture of a design (comparing the composer to the engineer and the fabricator reading the blueprint to the musician reading the musical score), Pacey makes the broader leap to the end-user playing the technology: “… we sometimes … use machines and other technology in the same way was we use music and musical instruments, to interpret the world and give it meaning.” (Arnold Pacey, Meaning in Technology, The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 17).  As Christians, we can play our technological instruments to help us interpret the world and understand that it is God’s world and that he gives that world, and us, ultimate meaning.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest