Technology & the Seven Deadly Sins

Monday, December 30, 2013

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Facebook is out, Snapchat is in.  Or so it seems from conversations with family this past Christmas.  Social networking might be a fad or simply technology fashion, but it does point out an underlying truth:  it is tough to keep up with technology.  Even engineers like me find it difficult to stay current with the flood of new gadgets, exotic engineered materials, new software apps, advances in medicine, advances in computing, and more.  As technology improves and grows, our scientific understanding of the world deepens.  As technology matures and expands, our ability to control our environment increases. 

We change our world and even ourselves with technology.  Nevertheless, human nature remains the same.  We remain God’s creatures made in his own image, created good.  God created us male and female, in community and relationship.  Even genetic engineering does not change our human need to connect.  God created us with an innate ability to recognize the divine and a special gift to worship our Creator.  Even precise descriptions of subatomic quantum effects does not change our human intuition that there is something more to life than that which meets the eye.  God made us the pinnacle of his creation with delegated authority and responsibility to care for the world.  Even the independence we attain through technology (such as personal transportation like the automobile or personal communication like smartphones) does not change our mandate to be stewards.  In fact, our role as stewards is the root of our ability to create technology.  It is not surprising that God created humans with innate ability to make tools.  We are homo faber, man the tool maker.  As stewards, we have the special gift to value the creation, to recognize the embedded worth of the resources around us, and then to cultivate and develop out of those gifts.  Our tool-making ability suits us well for these tasks.

We change our world and even ourselves with technology.  Nevertheless, human nature remains the same.  We remain fallen, tainted by sin so that we are inclined to hate God and each other.  We remain in need of redemption by the blood of the lamb.  While we humans have produced many new technologies, we have not invented any new means of salvation nor have we invented any new sins.  I suggest that every “new” human foible and failing that we see depicted in the latest video or read about in our newsfeeds is old news.  Creative humans will always develop new tools, and fallen humans will find ways to pursue old sins with these tools.  Not to minimize the danger of tools in our fallen hands, I recognize that technology is an amplifier, so the impact can be far greater when we use tools, whether the result of unintentional mistakes due to our finite nature, or the result of malicious acts due to our fallen nature.  Nevertheless, there is nothing new under the sun, in a spiritual sense. 

Thus, if you are looking for a good resolution for this New Year, consider resolving to redeem your personal use of modern technology in light of the ancient list of deadly sins, established since the Medieval period:

  • Lust
  • Greed
  • Gluttony
  • Sloth
  • Anger
  • Envy
  • Pride

Let’s take gluttony as an example.  Literally, the term refers to excessive eating.  How does that relate to technology?  Today’s foods are technological marvels.  Simply read the ingredients label on almost any food on the grocery shelf:  it reads more like a pernicious concoction of chemicals than a recipe of items you would willingly ingest.  Still, much of this engineering of food provides benefits, such as preserving the food longer, or making it look and taste better.  However, we also see some unfortunate side-effects from our ability to modify our food.  Much of the food on the grocery shelf is hardly food any longer, but rather a high-dose, quick delivery system for sugar and fat.  The convenience and low price of these pre-packaged wonders makes it easy to slip into gluttony.  Beyond the grocery store, American restaurants tend to cater to our gluttonous tendencies, so that an American-sized portion fills a large plate. We love to supersize our meals.  Unfortunately we rarely call this problem for what it is:  gluttony.  At most we might get some small admonishment from our physician or a health magazine to watch our weight, but rarely is anyone so bold to say that, at least for some, this excess is sinful.

Beyond the food excess of literal gluttony, technology can also tempt us into more figurative gluttony, such as consuming much more energy or other natural resources than we really need, buying gadgets just to fill our pockets, or going one-click crazy on Amazon.  Granted, some of our excessive consumerism is because we are trying to keep up with the Joneses (straying into greed or envy).  Nevertheless, when we have more than the Joneses yet still keep consuming, we likely have lurched into gluttony. 

For your New Year’s Resolution to avoid gluttony, consider tracking your progress not only by measuring your body waistline, but also by checking your technological waistline.  Do you have more mobile devices, televisions, or appliances than you need?  Check your grocery bill and also check your Best Buy, Newegg, and Amazon bill.  Are you purchasing more tech than really necessary? 

The opposite of gluttony is the virtue of temperance and moderation, which is a sign of contentment.  Paul writes to the church in Philippi about this virtue: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13, NIV)  For the new year, perhaps we can seek to emulate Paul, being content in all circumstances.


Design under Constraint

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

By Steven H. VanderLeest

When I arrived at Calvin College as a first-year student considering engineering as my major, my orientation session took an unexpected turn:  I got a note scheduling me for an appointment to visit a professor of English.  I naively wondered whether someone had mixed up the two majors and sent me in the wrong direction.  I found the room where several faculty were sitting at desks waiting to meet with their scheduled guests.  Making my way through, I spotted him:  Professor Stanley Wiersma.  He had a broad, flowing white beard down to his upper chest.  Reading glasses perched on his nose, while he scribbled some notes on the papers at his table.  He was rather portly, rounding out a sweater under a sport coat as he sat heavily on the small stool behind the small desk.  As I approached the desk of this man who looked rather like Santa Claus in a sport coat, I had no idea that he would change my life. 

Professor Wiersma greeted me cheerfully and gestured for me to sit in the guest chair in front of him.  His personality bubbled out quickly with a twinkle in his eye as he asked me a few questions about my life, hopes, and dreams.  I warmed to him immediately.  The purpose of the meeting?  He hoped to convince me to take the honors section of English 101, which he himself would be teaching that fall.  He anticipated my question:  “Why would an engineer want to take honors English?” He answered his own proposed question quickly.  “Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. VanderLeest, that every career would benefit from good writing skills?”  He explained that while we would still cover the mechanics of grammar, parts of speech, and so forth, the focus of the course would be something wonderful.  We would read poetry. 

Wait.  Poetry?  How is this better? 

It wasn’t just better, it was amazing.  We studied the poetry and prose of T.S. Eliot.  Amazing it was, but it wasn’t easy.  Eliot’s poetry had layer upon layer of meaning.  His prose was no less dense, where one could mine for intellectual gems for hours in just a single essay.  Wiersma was a gentle teacher, blithely guiding the conversation along in each class, cultivating good thinking and respectful debate around the ideas we encountered in Eliot.  Wiersma was also a challenging professor.  He expected honors students to produce excellent work each time.  About one month into the course, I handed in a paper only to get it returned to me shortly afterward, chiding me to rewrite it because I could do better than that.  Later, for one of the final papers, I was writing about one of Eliot’s master works, “The Waste Land”.  The day before it was due, as I was studiously typing up my paper, it slowly dawned on me that my analysis was shallow and uninspiring.  My paper dissected the poem into its composite bones and sinew, but completely missed the soul and spirit at the heart of the work.  My respect for Wiersma led to a creeping dread that he would find my paper lacked any originality.  I worked harder to avoid banality, but without success as I plunked further words on the page.  At the same time,  I was getting distracted with thoughts of the most recent set of poems we had read, the Four Quartets

Those who know me well realize that I am a planner and organizer.  I rarely wait until the last minute, planning ahead to get a project done with lists and tasks and dates laid out in a grid.  You will thus understand how difficult my next action was for me personally.  I yanked a half-typed page out of the typewriter, scooped up my already typed pages, and tossed them aside to start over on an entirely new paper from scratch—with just one evening to write the entire thing.  I wrote furiously, working out a much more original approach that had been nagging at the back of my mind.  My idea was to explore the earlier poem of “The Waste Land” through the lens of the later Four Quartets poems.  The Quartets provided a structure against which I could understand Eliot’s earlier ideas.  They provided an echo whose reverberation whispered deeper meaning into the antecedent meter.  By self-imposing the constraint of structuring my analysis of one poem through another, I had hit upon a more interesting, novel approach.  This was the paper that Wiersma would want.  I typed furiously late into the night as idea after idea arose from the parallels and harmony between the poems.  I turned it in on time the next morning, and when I received it back,  there was a personal note on the cover from Wiersma, expressing his appreciation for my unique approach. 

Years later, I came across a quote attributed to Eliot that crystallized not only my experience in writing that paper, but also rang true more broadly in my experience:  “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”  This is the strange paradox:  design under constraint does not stifle ideas, but instead produces creativity and innovation.  Necessity is mother of invention.

Apple understands the principle of design under constraint.  When developing a new app for the iPhone, they start with pencil sketches of the interface.  The iPhone has limited screen real estate, so they use paper printed with the outline of the iPhone on it, drawn ten times.  The development team includes engineers and artists.  They work together to sketch user interface ideas in pencil within the constraints of those shapes.  Each version out of the ten must be a different design.  The first few are usually easy.  But after five or six, it becomes challenging to think of yet another way to let the user interact with the application.  By the tenth one, the team is taxed to the limit.  They brainstorm and stretch their creativity to provide one more possible solution.  Why try so hard to make ten?  Aren’t the first few likely the most intuitive, since the team thought of them first?  It turns out that intuitive, creative design is often not the first thought, but rather the thought that came only after a mighty intellectual struggle.  It is often one of those last few versions that turns out to be the truly elegant, amazing, beautiful design. 

Good engineers understand the principle of design under constraint.  One is always faced with trade-offs in designing a technical solution to a problem.  We can make automobiles safer during a crash by bulking up the frame, but only at the cost of fuel efficiency.  We can make laptops faster, but only at the cost of lower battery life.  Buckminster Fuller, a 20th century American architect and engineer recognized this inherent interplay when developing building structures:  “Don’t fight forces, use them.”

We are finite creatures with a physical, bodily existence.  However, our bodily limitations are not something we are meant to escape.  God created humans with body, mind, and spirit.  Dyer recognizes this in his book on technology:  “The use of the ark seems to indicate that the physical world—and what we make with it—is so important to God that he graciously chooses to use what we make in his plan of redemption.  He doesn’t need to use what we make, but apparently it pleases him to do so.” (John Dyer, From the Garden to the City:  The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011, p. 103)  Our corporeality and finiteness are constraints that give us focus.  They are limits against which our creativity and imagination must push and stretch.  We also encounter this paradox of constraint producing freedom in the New Testament:  “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:25, NIV).  As Fuller admonished architectects, so too James admonishes us not to “fight forces” (i.e., the law), but rather to find freedom in honoring the law.

I delight in this paradox.  The struggle against constraints while solving a problem can run the emotional gamut of anguish, frustration, and despair.  Nevertheless, that moment of inspiration eventually arrives when a new idea suddenly dawns and one sees through the problem to an elegant solution.  The satisfaction of solving the problem is a great joy.  Design under constraint can produce beauty and wonder.  It is part and parcel of our physical reality and we are created to flourish within that structure.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest