Go Big or Go Home

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

By Steven H. VanderLeest

As a kid, I loved getting the Scholastic book catalogs.  Several times a year, our teacher would hand them out, giving us a deadline of a few days later to hand in our book orders.  I was an avid reader and my parents often indulged me with a handful of books, provided the total cost was reasonable.  Occasionally I would blow my entire budget on one large book, and that book was often the Guinness Book of World Records.  I spent hours pouring over its fine-print pages discovering the world’s largest ball of string, the world’s tallest skyscraper, the world’s heaviest twins, the record for the longest fingernails, the fastest human, the tallest human, on and on it went.

Why are we so fascinated with the record for the largest, fastest, heaviest?  In his blog titled “Hubris”, Tim Fernholz reviews a study by the Danish researcher Bent Flyvjberg that explores really big engineering endeavors, concluding that projects costing more than $1 billion almost always go over budget.  Flyvjberg goes on to identify four reasons society pursues large projects anyway:

  • technological:  engineers enjoy building the newest or largest item of its kind
  • political:  big public works can enhance the reputation and stature of a politician
  • economic:  big projects mean lots of business for construction companies
  • aesthetic: large projects often have a certain artistic appeal

It seems to me that this answers the first order question of why society pursues massive engineering projects despite their huge costs (that almost always end up even higher than expected).  However, it still begs the question of why society is willing to pay for the big project in the first place, even if it does generate work (which certainly could be generated with smaller projects).  It still begs the question of why politicians gain stature from advocating big projects more than from sponsoring small projects.  It still begs the question why engineers are more energized by building the newest or largest.  By titling his blog “Hubris”, Fernholz implies that these reasons boil down to the age old vice of pride.  I freely admit that pride is likely a significant driver for big projects.  Neighbors that vie to build the largest, boldest Christmas display on their street are often driven by a measure of conceit.
Surely national pride was at stake for Americans who woke up to learn that the USSR had succeeded in putting the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit.  This event drove a wave of scientific and technological development in the US, culminating with the massive engineering project to put the first human on the moon. 

Fernholz also mentions the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel as the paradigmatic symbol of big projects that failed.  One of my colleagues at Calvin, professor Gayle Ermer, examines this story in a paper at the 2008 Christian Engineering Education Conference, titled “Lessons from the Tower of Babel” (http://www.calvin.edu/academic/engineering/ces/ceec/#past)  She considers the tale of Babel and says “The implication could be drawn from this interpretation that Christians should not be investing a great deal of time and effort in technological accomplishments on a grand scale. While it may be true that over-reliance on technological achievements can detract from trust in God, it is questionable whether this is the primary lesson of the Babel story. “ She goes on to describe a God-honoring approach to technology that does not depend on the size and scale of the technology, but more so on its direction. 

I think that big technological projects are often driven by pride, a starting point that likely means the direction is not God-honoring.  However, pride is not the only reason for pursuing a big technological project.  In the name of stewardship of resources, we might seek economies of scale, such as building large wind turbines instead of smaller ones.  In pursuing a calling to develop and unfold God’s creation, we might build big.  Competition might drive a big project, not because of pride, but in order for a company to survive.  Engineers might view a large project as pursuing their calling, following Colossians 3:17 “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Should Christians participate in big technology projects?  I believe so.  However, we should do so with a discerning spirit and a keen sensitivity to avoid pride, working to design and build in a way that honors God and loves our neighbor.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest