Upgrade - Please Reboot

Friday, January 20, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2, NIV)

Imagine if every time you changed the oil in your car, you had to take out everything in the trunk, remove everything from the glove compartment, etc.  Then when the oil change was done, you could put everything back in and start over.  What if you had to turn the TV off and on again every time you wanted to change the channel?  Yet this is the procedure we go through every time we upgrade the operating system on our computer, or need to reboot because of an update to the OS or even to some of the applications.  Interdependence between components of the software system make these restarts necessary, but they are annoying.

Particularly annoying, when we reboot our computers, everything starts from scratch.  You don’t lose anything, assuming you saved before rebooting—though that is not always the case when the reboot is not voluntary on your part.  Even so,  you lose the particular distribution of window locations on the desktop; you lose what was open in your browser; you lose which song was playing in iTunes or youTube.  Our computer technology is finally starting to  address this problem.  For example, most web browsers will let you quickly save the set of tabs you have open at the moment, and some will try to restore the tabs you had open last time (even if the browser crashed).    Even more annoying, when we upgrade to a new operating system version or switch to a different operating system altogether, it is difficult to transfer our personalities.    Our computer technology is also starting to  address this problem.  For example, most OS offerings provide some type of transfer “wizard” that helps transfer files, web browser settings and bookmarks, and so forth.  But they are not all that smart yet, often leaving out settings that are important to us.  Many of them don’t capture your custom keyboard settings, or transfer all the additions you made to the dictionary for spellcheck over the years.

The upside to these restarts is that they give you a chance to clean out your virtual closet.  Back in my college and graduate school days we moved a lot.  Every change of address meant packing up our entire lives into the minimum possible number of cardboard boxes.  My wife and I learned to live lightly, retaining relatively few material possessions. Every move became an opportunity to cull out the dross, giving it away to friends, charity, or the garbage bin.   Simplifying our material lives not only made moves easier, but it also was financially beneficial (it turns out that frugality is an essential character strength for a graduate student living on a meager research assistant stipend).  What’s more, simplifying our material lives also made our living spaces less cluttered.  It is much easier to find what you need when there is less of what you don’t need that is covering it up.  This practice did not always prohibit buying a new item.  Sometimes a handy multi-purpose tool can replace several others, making it a prudent purchase.  A smart PDA or phone can serve as a universal replacement for calendars, address books, music players, and more.  

I think our early discipline regarding material goods was helpful to our spiritual growth too.  As  Christians striving to be in the world but not of it, I think a light hold on material possessions is crucial.  Learning to prioritize one’s physical space can also help focus one’s mind regarding priorities in other dimensions of life.  Where I spend my time or money also reflects what I hold dear.   Cleaning out one’s physical closets, organizing computer settings, or sorting through MP3s can be a cue to also regularly clean out one’s mental and spiritual spaces, heeding Paul’s call to the Romans to be transformed through renewal in Christ rather than conforming to the patterns of worldly desires.   It is much easier to find what you need when there is less of what you don’t need that is covering it up.


Do Calculators and GPS Make Us Stupid?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

“I’m not learning any more math.”  That was the firm declaration of one of my best friends in fourth grade.  He decided that he only needed to know how to use a calculator—all the rest was useless drivel that wouldn’t really matter in the “real” world.  Why bother knowing how to multiply when you could punch it out on the calculator?  Need any more convincing?  Things could get even uglier, making the calculator yet more attractive.  Consider the two words that could make even the nerdiest fourth grader shudder:  long division.

I encountered the calculator math mentality again when I was a teen.  Working in the family business, I learned to work the cash register and count back change.  “That will be $10.56, please”.  The customer hands me a twenty dollar bill.  “Thank-you.  Here is your change”.  I hand her four pennies (all at once), then four dimes (all at once), then 4 dollars one at a time, then a five dollar bill, calling out successively:  “That’s 10.60, 11 dollars, 12 dollars, 13, 14, 15, and 5 makes $20.”  If I had simple placed $9.44 in her hand, she would have given me a questioning look, if not outright asked me to double-check.  Reverse that today.  By the time I left the family business a few years later, the cash registers were getting smarter, reporting the amount of change to return to the customer.  Today, a cashier punches in the price along with the amount of cash from the customer, and then the cash register displays the amount of change to be returned (perhaps evening spitting out the required coins automatically into a dish).  Counting back change would be a strange, anachronistic ritual today.  Most younger customers wouldn’t understand what was happening.  Knowing how to add or subtract is not required of a modern cashier—and certainly not long division!

Today the trend continues.  I recently advised a transfer student in our engineering program who was having trouble in his second calculus course.  It turned out that he had taken the first calc course elsewhere, but the course was so watered down so that he merely skimmed over all the concepts using a calculator.  He only knew how to punch in a problem—which didn’t help when, during the second course, it became important to understand what was going on “under the hood” and to know what questions to ask in the first place (not simply which numbers to punch in the calculator). 

A similar phenomenon is the lost art of map reading.  Why bother understanding a legend or knowing how to measure a distance using the map scale when a GPS navigation system will take care of all that for you?  I admit that I have succumbed to the lure of this gadget.  Even though I am good with directions, I have a GPS navi unit in my vehicle.  I love the ability to estimate time to arrival, show alternate routes, identify nearby gas stations or restaurants, and more. 

The fear that technology would make us less intelligent or even less human is not new.  Plato feared the new technology of writing.  He “recognized that writing compacts the large and living structure of natural information and feared that detached parcels of written information, easily acquired, would take the place of genuine wisdom, arduously earned. Writing, he thought, would promote both vanity and stupidity.” (Albert Borgmann, Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 48)  Thousands of years later, we should still take care that our technology does not lead to vanity and stupidity.

Maybe it is acceptable that we use calculators instead of doing arithmetic in our heads, that we use GPS instead of reading a paper map.  These technologies can usually perform computational tasks faster than humans.  Tools that extend our abilities are not evil per se.  However, technological convenience can lead to sloth, laziness, or negligence.  Our technology can enable vice.  The tool is not a neutral bystander in these temptations.  Its very nature lures us by its usefulness and lulls us into complacency. 

How do we avoid this slippery slope?  If it is too strong a temptation, then perhaps we need to avoid those technologies altogether.  That would be unfortunate, because much good can come from the power of technology.  To what purpose should we put the extra time that we have saved? Rather than seeking more convenience (which usually means simply increasing our leisure time),  labor-saving technologies can help us serve God and serve others if we capitalize on that convenience by thinking more deeply about the results our technology quickly serves up, by asking significant and probing questions, by laboring more humanly in place of the mechanistic labor we are spared.  We ourselves will flourish and develop into more thoughtful people of integrity if we take proper advantage of our tools.  Calculators do not make us stupid—unless we let them.

The End of Technology

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

A colleague at DornerWorks, Rick Bemmann, recently mentioned that he believed technology development has been slowing down—to the point we may be reaching the end of new development.  There is some evidence for his hypothesis.  The added features in the next cell phone to come out are quite minimal when compared to the sea change we experienced when the first cell phone unchained us from a land line.  The final space shuttle flight slightly more than 40 years after the first moon landing (and 50 after Sputnik) was a bittersweet end of an era—many of us technology geeks who lived during the early years of man’s ventures into space had grand visions of human exploration of the outer space beyond our planet.  Today that vision is much reduced, if not extinguished.  The horseless carriage introduced a century ago was a game-changer technology that revolutionized society.  A hundred years later, our automobiles might look a bit different, but relatively speaking, they are rather similar to the Ford Model-T when compared to a horse.  The performance has not improved all that much either.  The Model-T got up to 21 miles per gallon (Ford Media ), right on par with the average mileage of modern vehicles.  Air travel is much faster than automobile, train, or ship, but the latest aircraft offers little more than the previous generation—perhaps you now have WiFi on board.  On the whole, it does appear that we have plateaued.  The dramatic pace of development we have seen in the last century seems to have slowed to a trickle.

This same theme of diminishing returns appears in an opinion piece titled “Taking Innovation for Granted” (Philip E. Ross, IEEE Spectrum, January 2012), also available as “Don’t Let Innovation Languish”.  Ross alludes to an earlier book, The Great Stagnation , by Tyler Cowen, which makes the point that most of our recent innovations have simply been revisions on earlier inventions, little knock-offs that make small, incremental improvements. 

I have also hinted as this slow-down in a blog last year, “Beautiful Challenges”.  However, I also pointed out that there are plenty of big challenges yet for us to tackle.  I regularly spur my engineering students to consider the really tough problems, to make a difference in the world with the technology they develop.  I want to see engineers and scientists going after world hunger and providing clean drinking water to all.  I don’t think we should settle for hybrid vehicles that get only marginally better mileage than their traditional gas engine counterparts.  Let’s continue to seek new drugs and medicines to reduce disease and suffering—including cautious use of genetic engineering.  We can accelerate our research on renewable energy sources.  I’d like to see convenient light rail inside more cities and high-speed rail between more of them.  I’d like to see more foods on the grocery shelves that taste great but are actually healthy too.  I’d like to see stronger protection of electronic data to prevent identity theft. 

However, I’m no technicist.  Technology is no panacea.  My own experience tells me so.  I’ve lost important files in a computer crash, I’ve been stranded with a car that wouldn’t start, and I’ve had to throw away spoiled food when our deep freezer failed.  Our societal experience also tells me that technology is no savior.  The last century has seen incredible technological innovation, but also terrible destruction.  For example, nuclear power has helped ease our dependence on oil and reduced our pollution of the atmosphere, but we have also seen the dark side of this powerful energy source in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukishima.  Another example is our increased use of disposable packaging, resulting in mountains of garage in landfills that doesn’t decay as fast as we pile it on. 

Our Christian faith also tells me that technology is no savior.  God calls us to trust in him, not in our own strength, nor our own wealth, nor idols, nor military might.  That doesn’t mean we cannot use technology, simply that it should not be our ultimate foundation nor an end in itself.  So are we reaching the end of technology?  No, I think we are simply in a temporary lull.  Such a pause can serve a useful purpose, allowing us to take stock of the technology we now have at our disposal and consider the end of technology in a different light—what is the goal, the “end” to which we will put these tools? 

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest