Running with Scissors

Friday, March 16, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor on the 90’s television show Home Improvement would frequently get into trouble because of his love of power tools.  His predicaments usually centered on underestimating how much power he actually was directing, so he often ended up breaking or crushing something valuable by accident when the tool got out of control. 

We are all susceptible to the lure of technology because it is a powerful amplifier of abilities.  We can pound harder with a hammer and see further with a telescope.  We can cut faster with a power circular saw than a hand saw.  We can compute faster with a calculator than with pencil and paper.  Technology has become central to our modern world because it has been so helpful. 

Technology is certainly a power amplifier—but don’t go too fast with it or you could get hurt.  In a hurry to finish writing up an important document, have you ever neglected to save it and then lost everything when the computer crashed?  Ever pounded your thumb instead of the nail?  Ever sent a rather sensitive email to a large group that you intended for just one individual?  We all have experienced technology’s power gone awry.  This past summer, we rented a power washer to clean off a few things in our backyard (the back of the house, the deck, a patio area).  While we were working, my wife decided to wash off a few tools, so she held them in one hand and sprayed them off with the other.  The spray caught just a small area of her hand too, which she didn’t really even notice.  But later, we saw that it had caused a significant bruise and damage to her skin.  That pressurized water was a powerful tool that took its toll before she had a chance to react.  The summer before, we were camping at a state park, sitting around the campfire in the late afternoon.  A pickup truck pulling a large “fifth-wheel” camper rolled by and began the process of backing into a lot not far from ours.  The driver stopped to let out the rest of the family so that they could direct.  As we watched, the driver angled back and his family called out directions.  He had to turn rather sharply, so everyone was watching as the angle got tighter and tighter.  A couple others were watching how close the back of the camper was getting to a large tree, ensuring there was just enough clearance to slide by.  Although they had someone looking at the area where the camper hitched to the pickup bed, no one was watching higher up where the action really was taking place until a loud pop cracked through the air.  The top of the front camper extension had pressed into the back window of the pickup near its center (behind the driver so that he didn’t see it) and as he backed in at a greater and greater angle, it finally pushed the window until the glass cracked and popped its seal.  No one was injured, though the window was a total loss.  That pickup truck was a powerful tool that took its toll before anyone had a chance to react.
While we might find a power circular saw more effective at cutting wood than a hand saw, it is also more dangerous.  While one could conceivably cut one’s finger by accident with a hand saw, you could entirely lose an entire digit with one wrong swipe of the circular saw.  We’ve always known at some level that we must be careful with technology.  When we were young, our mothers scolded us about running with scissors— if we stumbled, the sharp points could suddenly become unintentional and perhaps even deadly weapons. 

Running with scissors is our problem with much of technology.  Perhaps we are going a bit too fast when the convenience of electronic purchases lulls us into permitting companies to retain millions of credit card numbers in a centralized database.  It is convenient for them and for us. And for cyber-thieves.  Perhaps we are going a bit too fast when we let young people start driving before their brains have fully developed, before their reflexes have fully matured, before their judgment and risk-assessment abilities have grown sufficiently.  Perhaps we are going a bit too fast when we use genetically modified foods.  Have we taken enough time to evaluate the long-term health effects of a regular diet of foods that have had their DNA sautéed?  Perhaps we are going a bit too fast with our rapid consumption of energy generated by fossil fuels, not recognizing the impact on the atmosphere until it has become quite significant—or even past the point of no-return. 

Many philosophers of technology have surveyed the dangers of technology out of control and the frequent occurrence of unintended consequences, concluding that we need to use a “go it slow” approach.  They have advocated a precautionary principle, that says “no, unless”, implying that we should not adopt a new technology unless we have assessed the risks and have high confidence that it is safe.  However, there may be some cases where such caution does more harm than good.  For example, if we take more care in deciding whether to bring a drug to market, might we critically delay some dying patients from receiving the only effective medicine that could cure their disease?  We are all familiar with such societal debates about the trade-offs between efficiency, streamlining, creativity and freedom on the one hand versus safety and caution through regulation and oversight on the other hand.  Even if we decide (as individuals, as companies, or as nations) to refrain from some technology, someone else will invent it and use it, leaving us at a disadvantage.  This argument has been used to support genetic engineering and cloning, as well as certain types of massively destructive weapons.

To conclude, let’s focus on just one type of technology:  military weapons.  Paul justifies the use of force by the government in administering justice:  “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4, NIV).  Paul was writing to the church in Rome, the center of world power at the time, ruled by a government that was not always particularly gentle or righteous in its dealings, to say the least.  This passage is one of the scriptural supports for Just War theory, a philosophical argument that explores the limits of military power and establishes criteria by which a nation might rightly go to war.  In a world ridden with sin, sometimes governments need the sword to administer justice. 

However,  a sword itself is a rather limited weapon.  It requires close contact.  The ruler sees the evil-doer eye-to-eye as he doles out just desserts.  Today’s governments are armed with weapons that can kill many from a distance.  The most powerful weapons can produce rather horrific results.  That power should cause us to pause.

Because we humans often miss some of the consequences of our technology until it is too late, the more powerful the tool, the more careful we ought to be.  Besides the problem of our limited abilities, we also face the problem of evil.  But evil is not just somewhere out there. “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  (Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)  We are not only finite in our ability to predict the consequences of our technology, we are also fallen.  We ourselves are affected by sin and our powerful technology shows those effects.  Thus extreme caution is necessary for extremely powerful weapons.  That is not to say that governments should put aside the sword, but it is a call for thoughtfulness and wise counsel before invoking such weapons.  Scissors can be beneficial, but they can also turn deadly if we run with them and stumble.

Digital Jubliee

Sunday, March 04, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

People have rights.  In the United States citizens have the right to privacy, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to free speech, the right to gather for religious worship, and the list goes on.  There are international agreements about certain rights accorded every human (at least in theory, but often not in practice): everyone deserves access to clean drinking water, everyone deserves freedom from torture. 

People have rights, but Christians often think about those rights not as much about what “someone owes me”, but rather in terms of responsibilities.  What do I owe someone?  How can I serve them?  Rights are about treating others with fairness and equality.  Such rights do not require absolute equality:  while everyone deserves to be treated equally in certain terms (e.g., in the eyes of the law), there are other areas where inequality is not necessarily unethical.  For example, we might consider it a moral obligation to provide food for all, yet we do not extend that obligation to providing luxury yachts to all.  Where do we draw the line between need and luxury?  In scripture, God repeatedly calls his people to care for the hungry, for the naked, for the homeless.  So the line of our obligation at least extends to food, clothing and shelter.  I think it probably goes still further.  In the agrarian society of Biblical days, those that did not own land did not have the means to support themselves.  The institution of the year of Jubilee every 50 years meant that families got another chance to own land and thus a means of getting by.  This act of grace was couched in an expectation of justice.  It was up to them to then do something with the land. If they were lazy—if they didn’t plant, till the soil, and cultivate, then they might become destitute again and might even lose their land (until the next Jubilee). 

People have rights, but where do those rights come from?  I think we grant others rights and thereby incur obligations towards them because people are made in the image of God and thus deserving of our respect and care.  For our fellow humans, we have some moral responsibility to meet their basic needs:  what some would call human rights.  We are called to be Good Samaritans to a neighbor who is in need.  When a neighbor is down on their luck we are called to give them a renewed chance to earn a living.  However, today the Good Samaritan on a business trip is unlikely to be on foot—we are more likely to drive a car or fly to our destination.  We still encounter a neighbor in need, but now that might be a homeless man we drive past or a girl we see on a news website that was injured during an earthquake.  Today, technology has made more people our neighbors. 

Today, our means of earning a living is tied not to land ownership but rather is related to their education, or to their access to reliable transportation, or to the technology they own.  Technology has become a primary aide and sometimes an essential tool in providing food, shelter, health care, access to legal information, and access to job opportunities.  Someone without reliable access to technological tools is often at a significant disadvantage.  I wrote about this in equality in an earlier blog on justice, including a look at the divide that separates the digital “haves” and “have nots”.  The picture for the blog this week shows a graphical representation of this divide by mapping out the percent of the population with reliable Internet access, country by country.  One might say that Internet access is a luxury for the rich, not a necessity that is a human right for all.  I disagree. Access to the web is not the only important technological tool, but I think it is one of the more significant ways to find a job today, find legal assistance, gather medical advice, and more.  In this case, if only the rich have access to such a powerful tool, then the rich will get richer while the poor get poorer.  In this map we can see our neighbors that are at a disadvantage in our globally interconnected digital age.  How can we be a Good Samaritan to them today?  What does Jubilee mean for us and for them in a modern world dominated by digital technology?

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest