A Small Step

Monday, August 27, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

I’m glad it was Neil Armstrong that first stepped on the moon.  Very few human achievements measure up to leaving earth’s cradle and stepping on another heavenly body.  Lesser accomplishments have prompted outsized pride and boasting.  Momentous occasions are often forgotten by the next news cycle.  As he stepped off the ladder of Eagle, the Apollo 11 lunar module, Armstrong punctuated his singular moment of fame with the simple but powerful description “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

Armstrong was a self-described “nerdy engineer”.  He was proud of his profession, but also carefully modest.  It would have been a small step to become overly proud when making history like Armstrong, but instead we find him saying:  “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”  Some say that the original sin of Adam and Eve was pride.  It was just a small step from being God’s stewards to a desire to be like God.  Eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was an evil conceit, the deadly sin of pride.  Along with our original parents, we humans have always been susceptible to this character flaw.  While engineers are often naturally a bit shy and a bit modest, our ability to create new products can lure us into pride.  It is just a small step.  From appropriate pride in one’s accomplishments that acknowledges God’s help as well as the support of those around us, we can too easily stumble into pride in ourselves and over-estimation of our own self-worth.

Avoiding pride does not mean we cannot praise significant accomplishments.  While pride is a vice, encouragement of others is a virtue.  Landing on the moon was an extraordinary triumph that required extraordinary innovation, dedication, teamwork, and courage.  It is gratifying to read the tributes and eulogies for Armstrong and remember the early days of spaceflight.  A sense of wonder, of how small we are, can be a healthy corrective to bravado.  I’m glad it was Neil Armstrong that first stepped on the moon.  He showed us how it was done—with modesty and class.

Does the World Really Need One More…

Monday, August 13, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Does the world really need one more smartphone?  Does the world really need one more food processor?  Do we need yet another automobile?  Yet another version of an operating system?  Yet another music player?  Gadget overload can be a real problem.  Feature creep in software applications often bloats our programs so that it becomes difficult to navigate new releases and find all our familiar tools.  Special-purpose land vehicles (from fire trucks to military Humvees) often get filled with new technological devices to the point that there is hardly room for the driver! 

I recently addressed the personal need question, but does that exhortation to limit our consumption extend to society in general?  Yes and no.  As a society, should we constrain our production of redundant or marginally useful gadgets that make heavy use of scarce resources?  Yes, I think that is true.  There are as many good reasons for humanity as a collective society to live within our means as there are for humans as individuals.  Use of scarce resources in a product drives the cost of those resources higher— your basic economic supply and demand.  That makes your product more expensive and makes anything else using that resource more expensive.  If we are using non-renewable resources, then every use puts us closer to scarcity.  Even with an increasingly global network to increase our supply of resources,  we still see a rush to scarcity because that same global network also provides increasing demand distributed across the planet.  A renewable resource promises unlimited use, but only if we don’t over do it.  Too much pressure and we can use up a renewable source just as easily, sometimes in ways that the source cannot recover (e.g., over-harvesting fish or forests). 

As a society, should we then stop technological development altogether?  No, I think that is not the necessary conclusion.  We don’t generally question whether the world needs more art or music or literature.  Does the world really need one more song?  Does the world really need one more sculpture?  Yes it does!  Why?  Because humans need to create—it is part of who we are.  We thrive on development and innovation.  Likewise, we need new technology because invention is part of who we are.  As a society, continued innovation of technology, including personal communication devices, is a goal intrinsic to our community health and flourishing.  In our rush to avoid the error of over-consumption that is in essence gluttony, we might then fall into the same sin of omission that the man given one talent committed when he buried it out of fear rather than using and growing the gift as intended (Matthew 25).  I think we are thus called to cultivate the creation around us, making active use of earth’s resources—with care and forethought.  Resource allocations that are not appropriate for us individually might be right and good for society overall.  For example, a new car that has marginally better gas mileage than my current vehicle might be a bad choice for me individually, but making new vehicles available on the market that reduce our use of fossil fuels is an overall win for society.  As an individual, I might not need to replace my smartphone version 4 with the latest smartphone version 5, but continuing innovation and even incremental improvements are an essential part of our societal fabric.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest