The Evil of Technology
Thursday, April 18, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy. Evil is in our midst. Evil has struck again. The bombings at the Boston Marathon and the ricin letters to federal officials have been front page news this past week. Much of the discussion about these events has centered on determining whether the label “terrorism” is appropriate, and if so, identifying whether it is domestic or foreign. The news hounds are chasing leads about possible suspects. The pundits are sifting through the political and social fallout. The photos and video show us the human face of misery in the innocents harmed by these violent acts.
Amongst the flurry of facts and conjecture, another thread of the story emerges: the technology of violence. We are learning more about the apparent construction of the bombs. Likewise we are coming to understand how easily ricin can be produced. This is not unusual. In almost every story of terrorism or mass-murder in the last century, technology quickly emerges as the tool of the killer. This is not coincidental. Humans have always used tools to pursue their goals more effectively. Our technology extends our reach and expands our power. Too often, humanity is not prepared to wield that power. Too often we are careless. Almost any technology can be dangerous. Certain technologies are particularly prone to harm and thus particularly dangerous in the wrong hands.
There is no easy response to senseless violence. How do we identify who has the “wrong hands”? It is not simply the criminal or deranged mind that can make indiscriminate use of weapons—the normally rational, law-abiding citizen can also become volatile when infuriated. Even if we can make a reasonable identification, which technologies should be kept from those hands? Some devices are designed to be weapons for mass killings. This is why we zealously hide the design details of nuclear weapons and work against nuclear proliferation. Other weapons are not as devastating and because they are less restricted, they are more easily obtained. Even a tool not normally considered hostile, such as a hammer, can be a murder weapon in the hands of a killer. Even if we can reasonably categorize the technological tools most prone to ill use and if we can also reasonably categorize the individuals who should not have access to them, how do we prevent that access? Laws generally respected by law-abiding citizens may serve as only a weak deterrent to criminal behavior, depending on the perceived risk of getting caught and the attendant punishment. Restricting supply can be difficult when the technology is easily produced. Restrictions often have the unfortunate side effect of placing hurdles to legitimate uses of the same tool by upright users.
Should we give up in despair? No, we must muddle through. The answers won’t be clean nor simple. We’ll need to balance multiple interests. We’ll need to seek justice. We’ll need to offer mercy. We cannot simply eradicate technology. It is too pervasive. Pervasive because technology is part of who we are. Humans are tool-makers. We are creative developers. Careful design of technology can help reduce accidents, e.g., safety locks on guns. Some technologies can help detect illicit activities, e.g., metal detectors at airports or use of seismographs to detect illegal nuclear tests. Not perfect, but perhaps that is the best we can do. We cannot simply eradicate evil. Evil is not in certain hearts alone, so that we can segregate the malevolent from the merciful. Laws may be less effective than we hope, yet imperfect laws will provide some help. Addressing the root causes of poverty, injustice, and bigotry may go some distance to preventing hate and hostility. As far as we are able, let us pursue these preventative measures. Not perfect, but perhaps that is the best we can do. Evil lurks in every heart. That’s not how we were created, but sin now taints us. Only by God’s grace do we endure, only by Christ’s blood are we redeemed. Lord have mercy. Kyrie eleison.
Thursday, March 28, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
Remote presence, telecommuting, virtual meetings, virtual offices—these are the technologies that define the futuristic work space. Online communication has not only crept into our places of employment, but also found its way into the interactions of our families, our schools, and even romantic relationships.
Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo (and formerly a high ranking executive at Google) recently made waves in the business world by revoking Yahoo’s policy that allowed employees to work from home. Best Buy made a similar move, eliminating their vaunted Results Only Work Environment (ROVE) program. Both companies have been on the decline for a few years, with new management looking for ways to quickly turn them around. Is this a sign that telecommuting has failed? Despite all the hype about social networking, is remote, always-connected access mainly a boon for our personal lives, but a bust for business? What about online education? If these businesses believe physical presence is necessary for productive work, does that imply distance learning doesn’t work?
At DornerWorks, an engineering services company where I am a partner, the company policy only permits working from home by special permission. The normal expectation is to be at the office in person, although we provide quite a bit of flexibility with the actual hours. Some folks start later in the morning and work late. Others start early and leave early. Others work longer one day in order to free up some time for personal errands on another day. We’ve found that in cases where an employee does work at home, productivity can vary quite a bit. If they are home because of a sick child or a snow day for all their kids, then productivity might be fairly low (likely because of distractions at home). However, sometimes their remote productivity can be quite high. Instead of lots of formal and impromptu meetings along with interrupts and distractions, they can focus on their work in a quiet space within their own home. Our open floor plan for most of the workstations of our engineers is meant to encourage interaction and teamwork, but it also sometimes serves to break one’s concentration, making it difficult to focus on a single stream of work on a complex task. Many of our engineers resort to listening to music with noise-canceling headphones in order to block out the noise and conversations around them. Even though the executive managers have their own offices, even they sometimes find it necessary to go across the street to the local coffee shop when working on a large task, literally hiding out to avoid a constant stream of interruptions.
If tech companies have not entirely jumped on the telecommuting bandwagon, does that mean virtual communication is not effective? No, even if telecommuting isn’t embraced, big companies like Yahoo or small companies like DornerWorks still use many electronic means to do business, including web/video conferencing, email, and more. Even if telecommuting is not the norm, it can provide temporary flexibility so that work does not preclude family life. “These technologies [videoconferencing] are making inroads, and allowing easier integration of work and family life. According to the Women’s Business Center, 61% of women business owners use technology to ‘integrate the responsibilities of work and home’; 44% use technology to allow employees ‘to work off-site or to have flexible work schedules’”. (Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” The Atlantic, July/August 2012, p. 94)
In former days, families that were dispersed across the country or across the globe could maintain family ties via written letters or the occasional care package that might take days or weeks to arrive. Later, wide availability of telephone service augmented the written letter, providing live communication, albeit limited to a relatively poor-quality audio connection. More recently, those communication technologies have been augmented and sometimes completely replaced by Internet-based tools including email, instant messaging, social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, and video conferencing such as Skype or Google+ hangouts. These tech gadgets help parents stay in touch with children studying or working in distant locations. They help spouses connect when one is away on a business trip or called to active duty in the military. They help siblings catch up on each other’s lives when living in different states.
The content of the communication is affected by the tools we use, as McLuhan famously quipped, “the medium is the message.” The length of the message impacts what we say and how we say it. The available communication channels influence heavily interpretation and nuance. You might hear irony in their voice, even if the words don’t immediately tip you off. You might see irritation in their body language, even though their voice sounds calm. Our use of sideways smiley faces :-) when chatting online are, in part, a recognition of the lack of body language signals in that medium.
There are certainly some messages that lose much when sent electronically: a hug of comfort, the good-natured slap on the back for good work, the fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies or freshly picked flowers delivered in person as a token of apology. On the other hand, sometimes a new medium provides a new opportunity. “I have so many stories of people reflecting on the ways technology gave their parents voices they didn’t know they had. I remember years ago, people—mostly 20-,30-, and even 40-somethings—reflecting on the fact that when e-mail and text-messaging came along, they suddenly heard their father in a way he’d never been before. It gave a generation of taciturn men a way to have affective relationships across their families. I still hear that about the way people are connecting on Facebook.” (Genevieve Bell, Director of Interaction and Experience Research for Intel Corporation, in an interview with Alexis Marigal in “What Makes Her Click,” The Atlantic, December 2012, p. 42.)
I have blogged previously on online learning in Mediated Communication” . Let me simply add here that the desire of Yahoo management to bringing employees into the office for better engagement is not much different from the teacher’s concern to engage students in the classroom. I think online employment or education probably works best for employees or students that are self-motivated or perhaps incentivized to be engaged. The less inspired, self-starting, and mature they are, the less likely the online experience will be productive and the more likely they will be distracted—and distractions abound when one is using online tools. Sitting captive in a classroom is no guarantee that a student isn’t checking Facebook on the sly or reading a pulp novel tucked in front of the class textbook. However, the environment matters. The supposedly “multitasking” learner who not only has an online lecture streaming in one window, but also has Facebook, iTunes, gmail, Twitter, and YouTube all tiled across their laptop screen will no doubt have trouble focusing on just the lecture.
I don’t see online education completely replacing live classroom instruction in the near future, but I do see it augmenting and enhancing education, just as the telephone didn’t completely replace the written letter, and just as Facebook didn’t completely replace the telephone. That’s what technology does. It augments. It is a tool that extends our abilities. It is the hammer that extends the reach and power of our arm. It is the telescope that extends our sight. It is the automobile that enhances our speed. One of those educational enhancements is to give a new voice to those that have been silent: just as email enlivened the “taciturn” father, so too electronic communication can be the voice of a shy or taciturn student. “I think professors can help out by including an email option for participation so that introverted students have a way to share their ideas. I know one introverted friend who has been extremely grateful to professors that provide that option because she feels included in the conversation without having to fight other extroverted students to have her voice be heard.” (from an editorial by Ryan Hagerman , “Calvin needs to understand, support introverts,” Chimes Calvin College Student Newspaper, 1 February 2013. )
The easy distractions of all our online tools, which can make online learning challenging, can become literal temptations when it comes to romantic relationships. The ease with which we flit from one YouTube video to the next can lull us into thinking our real-life relationships are as easily interchangeable. Dan Slater examines the online dating phenomena in his article “A Million First Dates: How Online Dating is Threatening Monogamy.” ( The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2013, pp. 41-46) He finds that greatly increasing the available choices leads to less satisfaction and less engagement with any single choice. “Gian Gonzaga, [eHarmony’s] relationship psychologist, acknowledges that commitment is at odds with technology. ‘You could say online dating allows people to get into relationships, learn things, and ultimately make a better selection,” says Gonzaga. ‘But you could also easily see a world in which online dating leads to people leaving relationship the moment they’re not working—an overall weakening of commitment.’” (p 42) This is not surprising—it is simply another aspect of the distraction that can plague any aspect of digitized life. Slater points to Barry Schwartz for an explanation: “a large array of options may diminish the attractiveness of what people actually choose, the reason being that thinking about the attractions of some of the unchosen options detracts from the pleasure derived from the chosen one.” (p. 43) Furthermore, much of our digitized world is also monetized. Where capitalism drives the medium, then subtle incentives and disincentives will appear that might not align with the customer’s best interests. “Indeed, the profit models of many online-dating sites are at cross-purposes with clients who are trying to develop long-term commitments. A permanently paired-off dater, after all, means a lost revenue stream.” (p. 42)
Our spiritual connections to God are in some ways similar to our virtual connections in the digitized world. We have limited mediums, not because our God is limited, but because we ourselves are finite. God speaks in an audible voice or appears in visible form very rarely to very few. However, he speaks to all us through his Word, communicates to all of us through the body of believers in the community of the saints, exhorts all of us through the preaching of the gospel. Our communication links to God are equally varied. Instant messages are carried by our prayers, video conferences are through the sights and sounds of a heart-felt worship service, tweets are found in our personal journals. God hears and sees them all and he doesn’t miss any of the nuances, since he knows our heart. While acquaintances might misinterpret humor in an email because they don’t know us well, and even close friends might not always understand us even in intimate, live conversation, God knows us better than we even know ourselves. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26, NIV)
Words on my Mind
Thursday, March 07, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
“Bless the Lord, O my Soul” … Quickly, where is that passage found?
It was Wednesday evening. Our praise team was practicing singing “10,000 Reasons,” the song by Matt Redman, in preparation for the Sunday morning service. Our team leader planned to do a short prayer just before the song and so she wanted to review the passage corresponding to that line from the song. We all recognized it. It was on the tip of my tongue! A psalm? Yes, certainly. Which one? A quick lookup on my smartphone zeroed in on the passage, though it wasn’t quite so immediate, because my Bible app was the New International Version, and the NIV translates that first word as “praise” rather than “bless” so my search didn’t yield any psalms on the first try. A quick switch to biblegateway.org and a lookup in the King James version yielded Psalm 103 in short order. I should have known it was Psalm 103, having memorized that passage as a child. Why had that memory faded so far?
“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” Deuteronomy 11:18 (NIV)
I wasn’t always so slow to remember a verse. After finishing 5th grade, I attended a summer camp with my cousin. The week-long event was sponsored by the church my cousin’s family attended, so along with outdoor activities from hiking to swimming to volleyball, it also included Bible lessons each morning and chapel every evening. Camp was not for the faint of heart. We learned how to survive in the woods and how to survive in the ice-cold water of the camp showers. We ate the unidentifiable chow served in the dining hall and lived to tell about it. During chapel we sat on long benches constructed from rough hewn wood during even longer meditations constructed from rough hewn personal testimonies of the speaker for the evening.
On the first day of camp, the head counselor announced a memory verse contest. The student who was able to memorize the most scripture passages from the official contest list would win a monetary prize. Five dollars might not sound like much today, but to a fifth grader back then, that sounded like a small fortune. The first passage on the list was Psalm 1. An entire psalm? Yes, that was the first hurdle. But the first psalm is only six verses, and I had already memorized the first couple verses some time previously in Sunday School. I set to work repeating the first couple verses over and over again, until I had them down pat, then added another verse, repeated the longer string of words over and over, finally getting the entire psalm firmly in my head. I raced to my cabin’s counselor and the words flew out like water from a firehose, partly from excitement and partly in fear that I might forget if I took too long to recite the scripture passage. Other students also got through that first Psalm and recited it. I tackled more and more passages down the list, racing to stay ahead of the competition. Over the course of the week, I had memorized my way through the entire published contest list (including the first five verses of Psalm 103). Eventually the counselors had expand the list and assign a few more to me. When we assembled for the final chapel on Friday, the head counselor pulled out a crisp five-dollar bill and announced that I had won the contest. I was ecstatic. I walked up to collect my prize and only when I turned to return to my seat and the whole group applauded did I feel a just a smidgen of pride.
The following year, I once again attended the camp and on the first day they again announced a Bible memory contest. This time the prize would be a airplane flight, piloted by one of the church members with a private aircraft pilot’s license. Here was a prize worth pursuing. I had never flown before. The winner would get to see their house, their school—their entire neighborhood from the skies above. This year the counselors were prepared. The list of scripture passages was long and varied. Some of the passages were familiar favorites, while others were obscure little pieces from little known corners of the Bible. I attacked the list with fervor. All other camp activities paled in comparison with this pursuit. Every moment of free time we got, I had my nose in the Word, practicing the next verses on the list. When we assembled for the final chapel on Friday, once again the head counselor stood up to announce the winner. I held my breath. He said a little about the importance of memorizing the Word of God. He thanked all the students who had participated and memorized so many verses. I was on the edge of my seat. My feet were twitching with nervous energy. Finally he proceeded to announce the winner. Me. I was ecstatic! He handed me a certificate for the plane ride and once again the group applauded. Later that summer I enjoyed my first plane ride, taking off from the Kent County airport to fly low over Grandville, Michigan and get a bird’s eye view of my house, my church, and my school.
In the weeks and months afterwards, many of those memorized passages faded from my memory. Now decades later, only a few favorites come easily to my lips. The sands of memory get smoothed out and fade under the ocean waves of time. Does technology speed up our forgetting? While ubiquitous wireless access puts an incredible array of information at our fingertips, are we really smarter? I can google an answer for you, but does that make me wiser? I suspect the convenience of the Bible on my iPhone gives me the excuse to memorize less. However, humans have long used lists, and writing in general, as a tool to help us remember. Perhaps a Bible app is just another one of those tools. In the past I have rarely carried a Bible around with me, but now I have it with me daily, in my phone. Few of us could memorize and retain the entire Bible, so we all need the crutch of the written Word occasionally. On the other hand, I think it is still a good spiritual discipline to memorize some of scripture, so that God’s Word lives both in our minds and our hearts.
Why I couldn’t read the Bible in church
Wednesday, January 30, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
Our church holds its Sunday morning worship services in two locations within our building, connected together by a video link. The upstairs sanctuary holds a couple hundred folks in the traditional double aisle of long pews from front to back. Our Family Life Center, which functions as a gymnasium, cafeteria, activity room, and more during the week, becomes the downstairs sanctuary on Sunday mornings, with flexible seating in widening semi-circles around the stage where a praise team leads singing and where a projection screen carries the video feed of our pastor who is upstairs leading prayer and preaching the sermon. Sometimes the pastor leads from downstairs and the upstairs folks get the video feed (just to keep it fair). The upstairs pews are stocked with Bibles and songbooks, but not so with the downstairs seating.
One Sunday morning my family decided to sit downstairs for a change, instead of our normal upstairs spot. While many of you habitually bring your personal Bible to church, we had lost this habit in depending on those handy Bibles in the rack in the pew. So here I was sitting downstairs watching the pastor on the video screen as he commenced reading the scripture passage for the day’s sermon. Wait, I didn’t have a Bible handy! Sure, I could listen to his reading, but I really preferred to follow along in my own Bible, since I’m more of a visual learner.
No problem, I could pull the passage up quickly and easily on the Bible app on my smartphone. It would be even better than reading the print version, since I would be able to compare multiple translations, instantly click through any footnotes to see reference passages, pull up commentary notes, and more. However, when I pulled out my phone and fired up my Bible app, my wife and teenage son quickly put the kibosh on the entire plan. They were obviously mortified, so I quietly put my phone away and politely listened to the pastor read the verses for the day.
After church, I queried my family about the incident. There were a several reasons for their dismay. First, it might be distracting to other parishioners to have someone using an electronic device. True, an electronic reader on a smartphone or tablet device typically has active lighting, so it would catch your eye more easily. It also may require more manipulation, especially on a small screen device like a smartphone, where you’ll need more swipes to turn the small virtual pages compared to the necessary page turns of the physical book. Second, it might give the appearance of bragging about one’s possessions. Perhaps that would be the reality—that using one’s smartphone in church was no different than wearing expensive clothing or gold jewelry to advertise one’s wealth.
Since that day, I’ve noticed a few other church members using an iPhone, Kindle, or other device to follow along in scripture, so perhaps I’ll try again at some point. In any case, I am now a bit more thoughtful about how I use my gadgets. As an engineer, I’d like to think I only use the most effective, efficient tool for the job. However, that’s not always my entire reason for buying a technological product, whether I admit it or not. I must be careful to avoid the pride of possessions or the gluttony of rampant materialism. I must show care for my fellow believer down the aisle. I must consider stewardship—both of my finances and of our natural resources. In short, I must honor God in all I do and all I own.
Etymological bunny trail: By the way, did you know that “kibosh” has a long history going back at least to an 1836 Dickens short story, but appearing in some newspapers and court proceedings even earlier. There does not appear to be strong consensus about what or who a “kibosh” might have been or why it came to mean putting an end to something.
Broken Christmas Toys
Wednesday, December 26, 2012By Steven H. VanderLeest
They could make toys better. They could make them stronger, less prone to wear and damage. They could make them safer, with fewer dangerous small parts, with fewer toxic materials, with more comprehensive testing. They could make them more educational, smarter, more sophisticated. They could make toys better. But they don’t.
When our children were young, it was not unusual during the days and weeks after Christmas to find a Christmas present already broken and discarded. It started out life beloved and cherished right out of the gift wrapping. The doll joined a tea party. The Hot Wheels car joined a parade and then a race. The new watch went on the wrist for the rest of the week. Some toys came back for repair within minutes, while others lasted days. A few sturdy stalwarts lasted long enough to be handed down to a sibling. Why weren’t all the toys made that sturdy? Why were some made of flimsy materials that easily broke in the hands of an industrious four-year old child?
Toy designers and manufacturers do have a choice. They could make better toys. Why don’t they? Because we consumers so often choose lower price over higher quality. Imagine a toy seller who produces two models of the same toy. The first model is made of the inexpensive materials, with little attention to durability. Costs are reduced further by slimming down the thickness of each part and minimizing the number of fasteners by using an inexpensive sealing process. This makes the toy not only more frangible, but also less repairable. The second model is made to last, with high quality materials. The designer pays attention to likely wear patterns and beefs up the parts where weakness might otherwise lead to breakage. More expensive fasteners are used so that the toy can be repaired, should any problems occur. From the outside, the two toys appear quite similar. A Christmas shopper in a hurry probably couldn’t spot the higher quality of the second toy without close examination. The only clear difference is the price, which is almost three times more for the second model than the first. Towards the end of the shopping season, the first model has sold out, yet stacks of the second remain. Why don’t they make toys better? It isn’t some insidious toy conspiracy. It is because we ourselves won’t pay for the higher quality. You get what you pay for. We choose to pay little, so we get little.
The forced choice in making a toy is not unusual. Trade-offs are implicit in most engineering designs, requiring a balance between multiple goals that each appear to be good. yet more of the one requires less of the other. Balancing cost and quality is just one example. We trade-off weight (and indirectly safety) with high gas mileage in automobiles. We trade-off time to market with thoroughness of clinical testing for new pharmaceutical drugs. We must often prioritize the competing goods of aesthetics, performance, reliability, safety, recyclability, and more. I once asked my students in an engineering class about the difference in the rigor one should use in designing electronics for an MP3 portable music player when compared to designing a medical instrument to monitor an infant’s vital signs. At the one extreme, some students indicated there should be no difference. They thought that Christians should do our best and produce the most excellent and safe designs regardless of the intended use. This position, advocating for an equal attention to all designs regardless of intended use, has some scriptural support. Colossians 3:23 tells us “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” No matter where we find ourselves, every occupation is worthy of our best efforts as an offering to the Lord. At the other extreme, some students indicated that the infant monitor should be designed with the utmost care and much more attention, compared to the music player. This position, advocating for more care when the intended use is more critical, also has some scriptural support. Philippians 4:8 tells us “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Can you ever go overboard on safety? Is there ever an acceptable risk? I believe so. Consider two examples. First, look at the common nail hammer. It is designed to pound nails into wood. This purpose leads to a design with a hard striking surface, a relatively heavy weight to provide momentum when the striking surface is swung, and a long handle to harness the centrifugal force of that swing into a powerful impact on the head of the nail. The design is appropriate to the need. The design is also deadly. That same powerful impact on the head of a person will kill. We could alleviate that risk by reducing the weight of the head, softening the striking surface, shortening the handle to reduce the swinging force, and so forth. The resulting pillow on a stub stick would no longer be able to kill, but it wouldn’t be able to pound nails either. Second, look at making your car safer by adding steel plating to protect you during a crash. However, plating makes the car heavier, so gas mileage plummets. Plating in place of fragile windows would be even more protective, but then you wouldn’t be able to see out very well, making driving less aesthetic and probably more accident-prone. If we add even more plating to make it even more safe, the car may not fit in the lane anymore, nor fit in your garage. That extra plating will cost you—so much that we might price the car out of reach of most budgets.
Good designs are thus a balance of competing goods. If the balance is distorted, favoring one goal to the exclusion of all others, the resulting product is usually dysfunctional, because proper function depends on meeting multiple goals simultaneously. Not only are products the result of a trade-off, but the engineering design process itself is also a trade-off. The old saw “Better, faster, cheaper—pick any two” is a reflection of the balance between the scope, schedule, and cost of a project. Does this mean that one must always accept less of one goal in order to achieve more of another? Not necessarily. Sometimes we find a clever new way to achieve both lower cost and higher quality, e.g., by reducing waste. Sometimes we find an innovation that lets us achieve both environmental stewardship and corporate profit, e.g., by reuse and recycling. Sometimes we find a way to make a part both lighter and stronger, e.g., by using composite materials. I think such combinations are particularly excellent and praiseworthy.