Moms Can Program

Thursday, October 27, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

It is not often that the editor of a major technical journal is forced to issue an apology.  The most recent IEEE Spectrum Tech Alert landed in my email inbox this morning, with a headline of “With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program.”  A few hours later, the editor of Spectrum apologized for the headline, saying “I’m an IEEE member, and a mom, and the headline was inexcusable, a lazy, sexist cliché that should have never seen the light of day.” 

I’m glad that they retracted the headline (the real title was supposed to be “The Making of the Arduino”, but someone on the tech alert staff tried to lighten it up).  However, this incident makes it clear we still have some ingrained gender stereotypes.  As an engineering educator, I am a bit embarrassed that many of my computer engineering classes are predominantly male, and sometimes, like this semester, I see a class that is entirely male.  Why do females stay away from engineering so frequently?  I worry that it is because we have set up subtle hurdles that make engineering seem like a “good old boys” club.  Even if unintentional, we are enabling an injustice when creating a segregation mentality. 

Those of almost any faith persuasion hold justice high on their list of virtuous behavior and consider injustice as one of the foulest banes of a fallen world.  We have a divine mandate to right such wrongs, particularly if we are in positions of power to make a difference. 

Proverbs 28:5 indicates justice starts with knowledge: “Evildoers do not understand what is right, but those who seek the LORD understand it fully.” (NIV), but that’s not enough.  Micah 6:8 tells us the Lord requires us “to act justly”.  Action, not simply knowledge, not simply words, is required.  Men working in technical fields ought to know better than to imply that women are less capable, simply because of their gender.  Some men working in technical fields have not gotten the message yet.  That’s ignorance at best, bigotry at worst – and injustice regardless. 

Technology Took My Job

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Susan lost her job at one of the big three automakers in Detroit during the run-up to the great recession.  Why?  Foreign automakers had been slowly gaining market share with their higher fuel-efficiency and higher reliability driven by technology.  Technology took Susan’s job.  Dylan lost his job as an engineer at a large auto supplier in Ohio because after his company shifted much of their manufacturing to a low-cost manufacturing labor country, they then shifted much of their engineering to a low-cost engineering labor country.  This only worked because the company had constant, rich contact with these remote locations through video conferencing, high-speed data sharing, and collaborative tools.  Technology took Dylan’s job.  Jessie lost her job as a receptionist at a small business in Colorado when they replaced her with a automated receptionist and voicemail system.  Now callers simply dialed through to the extension they needed.  Visitors to the office printed out their own nametags and announced their presence to their host using the computer attendant in the front lobby.  The employee would then get an electronic message that a guest was waiting for them in the lobby.  Technology took Jessie’s job.

Oversimplified and overly focused on the technology by itself without regard to personal, economic, and political forces, these stories touch a nerve that has run through the body of our social and cultural life for many decades.  While a Luddite today is someone that loathes technology, the original Luddites who rioted to destroy mechanical looms in the early 1800’s were not so much haters of technology as they were distraught over loss of their jobs.  The immediate target of their despair was the machine that stood in their place in the factory.  But while a technological device certainly has ethical implications and contains design biases, it has no moral agency.  The machine cannot choose; rather, it is the embodiment of the choices of its creator and even more directly of its owner.

Today, on the far side of the industrial and then information technology revolution, the unemployed worker has a somewhat clearer picture of the forces that create, move, and destroy jobs.  Technology and science are not so neutral and not universally beneficial as we once naively believed – and certainly not impartial when instruments in the hands of frail and fallible humans.  The US and Europe now struggle with high unemployment, getting a taste of the rough edge of economic turbulence that many in the developing world have know for years.  Technology may be part of the brew that caused havoc, but it might also be one of the instruments to bring us back to health.  Having learned that the power tool can hurt and even maim, let’s not therefore throw it away, but rather learn to use it with care. 

New York Times editorialist Thomas Friedman has argued frequently in his column and books that the global market and technology have flattened our world so that we are now all interconnected.  He further contends that Americans who want good jobs can no longer do repetitive, dull work – because that is precisely the work that will go to the lowest cost labor (human or machine) anywhere in the world.  Rather, people who want good work, anywhere in the world, must turn to more creative, innovative endeavors.  Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind has made similar claims, that logical (and perhaps mechanical) thinking with just the left side of your brain is becoming the commodity.  Inventive design requires engaging that creative right side too.  Staying ahead of the curve means going beyond simply answering questions or doing the math.  It means asking the right questions and having a vision for new designs. 

How does Christian faith work into these questions?  First, work is part of what makes us human.  From our first days in the garden of Eden, women and men were formed to work.  To accomplish good tasks.  To achieve noble ends.  “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, NIV)  We are the imago dei and in that image we see creativity and ability to perform good deeds.  Second, because work provides meaning (and often is also the means to live and thrive through income), when people lose their employment, an injustice has been done.  Care for workers is part of Isaiah’s call for justice and condemnation of the hypocritical Israelites of his day: “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.” (Isaiah 58:3, NIV).  Third, we are called not only to justice, but also to mercy.  The modern good Samaritan does not often find a man beaten by robbers on the side of the road, but we frequently encounter those who are under employed or out of work completely.  Caring for their immediate needs of food and shelter is important, but giving them dignity and respect requires that they have their own means through employment.

I do not mean to trivialize the problem.  Employers who turn to low-wage workers or even replace human beings with machines on the line are not simply calloused capitalists whose greed blinds them to human need.  In a competitive market, those that do not innovate will die.  Those that do not continuously provide products with new features yet at lower costs will go out of business.  The Occupy Wall Street movement might rightfully question record profits of certain large corporations, but how will we solve the deeper problem of maintaining a healthy economy that provides rich jobs to all?  Many businesses continue to struggle while we all seek firmer footing in a global world.  Yes, the problem is hard, but our call is to find ways to honor God and honor our neighbor even in economic downturns.  The last time we saw such a downward spiral was the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  At that time, my grandfather was out of work and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  They built public works around the country – something that my grandfather was quick to relate because he was proud to have served in this way.  Perhaps we should consider a CCC approach more often, rather than simply making unemployment payments month after month to those out of work.  While I think we have some moral obligation to feed and shelter those who have lost their incomes, more importantly, we should use those funds to employ their skills – not in a crass trade because they “owe” us, but rather because such work provides dignity and respect to fellow human beings.  Our neighbors who are down and out deserve such high regard because God created them.

Lessons from Jobs

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Steve Jobs died last week.  He was the co-founder of Apple, an extraordinary innovator, and a technology visionary.  It does not appear that he was a Christian (rather, reports point to Buddhism).  So can Christians still learn from him?  I think so.  Just as God gives rain to the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45), I believe he gives creativity and insight (reflections of his own image) to all people.  Recognizing the limitations of finite beings who are also corrupted by sin, we still can catch a glimpse of that imago dei, and glean some wisdom even from non-believers. 

I think Mr. Jobs showed us that technology can be intuitive and useful, demonstrating the design norm of integrity.  (A design norm is a guideline or virtue applied to technical development.)  Form and function that work in harmony, melding utility and aesthetics – this is integrity of design.  Computing products that provide an intuitive user interface also demonstrate integrity, making the human-machine interaction natural and unambiguous.  Because integrity of design requires a good understanding of the context and non-technical aspects, those products that do it well also demonstrate cultural development along the technological vein, fulfilling our call to steward the earth by cultivating it and making it flourish.  Innovation.  Art.  Invention.  Call it what you will, it is fine engineering. 

Computing and mobile platforms have one aspect that does not promote integrity:  their tendency to insulate the user, promoting isolated and individualistic use.  Integrity as a design norm not only looks for harmony of the device, but ideally promotes harmony in human relationships as well.  Good technology will build bridges between people and encourage right relationships.  On this score, we have only made a few halting steps of progress.  It helps that laptops, tablets, and smartphones allow us to move away from a desk and interact with others a bit more naturally.  It helps that ubiquitous networking allow us to move away from that Ethernet jack in the wall and work and play with our computing technology in more comfortable places.  It helps that social networking software such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ keep us connected to friends and colleagues.  Even that ancient social networking technology called email allows us to stay in touch with loved ones living far away.  A website like encourages human interaction through our buying and selling, particularly because it focuses on local economic activity and aids in connecting parties together that typically complete the transaction by meeting face-to-face.  Care sites that allow friends and family to post get-well wishes and prayers for someone in the hospital also help us come together as a community even if we are geographically scattered.  None of these is perfect and sometimes they even discourage more direct conversation.  Thus we have work to do yet. 

All of us using these technologies can make a difference.  Focusing on our neighbor, we can intentionally find ways to show love and care with the tools at hand.  All of us developing these technologies can make a difference.  We ought to move from the narrow focus of an individual consumer who is simply a paying customer to a wider view of the human beings that form a community.  Our tools can encourage healthy communication if designed towards such high purposes.  For Christians, this becomes pursuit of another calling beyond stewardship.  It is the Good Samaritan virtue of caring.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest