Tools from God
Friday, September 07, 2012By Steven H. VanderLeest
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark…”
Genesis 6:11-14 (NIV)
After the original creation story, we know of only a few instances where God directly created an object for human use. God made the garments of skin for Adam and Eve, providing a more durable covering than the fig leaves they first used to cover their embarrassment. God made the original stone tablets and wrote the ten commandments on them himself. We also know of a few instances where God provides blueprints for humans to build something, such as the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and Noah’s ark. These artifacts were made from natural resources and had a primarily utilitarian purpose (i.e., they were intended to serve as a means to some further end). Clothing, a long-lasting writing medium (though not so enduring when dashed to the ground), a pack-n-go shelter, a mobile keepsake cabinet, and a zoological cruise ship are all examples of technology. These examples raise a couple questions in my mind.
Why so few examples? It might be that God provided intends for us to follow his example rather than always making tools for us. Beyond these few samples, God has delegated building and construction primarily to his stewards: you and me. What can we learn from our Creator mentor about our assigned task? Let’s look at the purpose of each technology that God made himself. The clothing for Adam and Eve addressed their sin-induced embarrassment. The Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant provided a focal point for worship and reminders of God’s presence. The other ark, made by Noah, provided a shelter against the ravages of a global flood. Each technological artifact is a tool, an instrument. Each is primarily a utilitarian means to a purposeful end. In the same way, the technology we develop should serve: our tools should serve God and serve our neighbor. The design of our technology ought to recognize our human limitations and address the effects of sin.
Why such concrete examples? God used physical, corporeal, embodied solutions—things made of animal skin, stone, and wood. Why not more directly and miraculously fix the problem? My suspicion is that God wanted to provide a physical reminder of his care and keeping. God, as a spirit, is difficult for us to grasp (in the intellectual sense). The solutions he provided were physical tools that one could grasp in a physical sense. The tool that provided a physical help then also became the crutch his people could use to grasp his eternal presence and benevolence. In the same way, our best technological products provide an immediate help to those in need but also serve to point to our Creator and Savior. The fruits of the spirit and Christian virtues thus become active and real. Our technology is not only an instrument for immediate relief, but also a conduit for kindness, goodness, justice, mercy, and love.
A Small Step
Monday, August 27, 2012By 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, 2012By 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.
Video Game Violence
Friday, July 20, 2012By Steven H. VanderLeest
April 20, 1999. Two troubled teens walked into Columbine High School wielding multiple firearms in a massacre that left 12 students and a teacher dead. In the aftermath of such a tragedy, it was natural to want answers. Why did they do it? What could have driven them to such an evil and horrendous deed? Sifting through the ashes of their lives, analysts from psychologists to reporters proposed a number of theories. Were they driven by drugs? Poor home situations? Mental disease? Or perhaps it was caused by the violent video games they played. They were so enthralled with first-person shooter games such as
Doom that they even created new custom levels, which they published for other players to use. Although this was not the first time video games were blamed for real-life violence, a number of somewhat less infamous cases have arisen in the decade since, with convicted killers occasionally pointing to video games as their “inspiration”. (After finishing this blog, I was ready to post it today when I learned of the new horrific violent act in Aurora, Colorado early today. My thoughts and prayers are certainly with those families.)
Less dramatic but perhaps more prevalent is the issue of addiction. I have seen college students become heavily immersed in multiplayer video games to the point they stop going to class or even forget meals. Perhaps even a well-adjusted person might start feeling the effects of the violence in video games if they become addicted to the game resulting in prolonged exposure to the themes of the game.
The media has frequently issued reports linking violent behavior with the playing of violent video games. Scientific studies has also turned up an apparent link, though as with many complex societal questions, there has been some debate in the peer-reviewed research literature. When the scientific research is not clear-cut, how do we proceed?
On the one side of the debate, a large group of studies, including broad systematic meta-analysis by authors such as Craig A. Anderson, shows a statistically significant correlation between earlier exposure to violent video games and later violent behavior. “Violent video game play and aggressive personality separately and jointly accounted for major portions of both aggressive behavior and nonaggressive delinquency. Violent video game play was also shown to be a superior predictor of both types of delinquency compared with time spent playing all types of video games.” (Craig A. Anderson and Karen E. Dill, “Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v78, n4, April, 2000, p. 782) Why does the violence in these games leak out into the real life of the player? Anderson surmises that “the player learns and practices new aggression-related scripts that become more and more accessible for use when real-life conflict situations arise.” (Anderson 2000, p. 788). In a later paper, Anderson indicates that even the small but measurable effect he found is important: “When large numbers of youths ... are exposed to many hours of media violence (including violent video games), even a small effect can have extremely large societal consequences.” (Craig A. Anderson, “An update on the effects of playing violent video games,” Journal of Adolescence, 27, 2004, p. 120-121). In one of his most recent papers, he went beyond identifying a correlation to claiming causation: “the newly available longitudinal studies provide further confirmation that playing violent video games is a causal risk factor for long-term harmful outcomes. This is especially clear for aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and empathy/desensitization. “ (Craig A. Anderson, et. al., “Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Psychological Bulletin, American Psychological Association 2010, Vol. 136, No. 2, p. 169)
On the other side of the debate, a smaller number of experts have questioned results that claim a correlative link between exposure to violent video games and subsequent violent behavior. For example, Christopher J. Ferguson believes the studies like Anderson’s have methodological flaws, from problems with selection of participants to exaggeration of results. Ferguson’s own published studies show no definitive link between violence in video games and violence in real life. Anderson’s published reply to Ferguson appears to debunk the suggestion that the studies were flawed or that the results were not significant. Even so, I find at least some of Anderson’s work to be less compelling. For example, his 2000 study had subjects play video games (either with or without violence) and then in a later setting, they could play against a supposed competitor and “punish” the loser of the game with a sound blast. Anderson claimed this as an aggressive tendency if they used a higher setting of sound. Just because a player used a higher sound blast in a setting that was obviously contrived (and thus still part of the game) does not mean that the person would carry aggressive behavior into their real life relationships. That is, most video game players can clearly differentiate the game from reality. Perhaps more importantly, Cheryl Olson points out already in 2004 that the research showing a link between video game violence and actual violent behavior does not seem to be borne out in our societal experience. “It’s almost an American tradition to blame the corruption of youth on violent mass media, from the lurid ‘half-dime’ novels of the 19th century to 1930s gangster films and 1950s horror/crime comics…. Violent video games are the most recent medium to be decried by researchers, politicians, and the popular press as contributing to society’s ills… Certainly the stealing, beating, strangling, and hacking depicted in games such as Grand Theft Auto III, Manhunt, and Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, are shocking to many adults. It seems reasonable to assume that wielding virtual guns and chainsaws must be bad for our children. However, the potential of gangster movies to trigger violence or teach criminal methods to the young seemed just as real to previous generations.” (Cheryl K. Olson, “Media Violence Research and Youth Violence Data: Why Do They Conflict?” Academic Psychiatry, Summer 2004; 28:2, p. 144-145) Olson goes on to note that studies of the perpetrators of deadly school shootings did not identify any single pattern or profile, though the most common trait was a history of suicidal thoughts. “Moreover, there is no evidence that targeted violence has increased in America’s schools. While such attacks have occurred in the past, they were and are extremely rare events… Constant news coverage leaves the impression that youthful crime is increasing.” (Olson 2004, p. 145)
The data seems to support Olson’s conclusion. Even while violent video games have become more prevalent, youth violence has not increased proportionally. The fighting game Mortal Kombat was introduced in 1992 with amazingly realistic graphics (but still two-dimensional). The three-dimensional first-person shooter Doom was released in 1993. The infamous Grand Theft Auto hit shelves in 1998. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) aggregated national statistics on youth violence starting around that same time. They show a fairly consistent decrease in violence, even while video games have become yet more realistic. The CDC found that homicide rates in the United States committed by youth 10 to 24 years of age decreased significantly from 15.6 in 1991 to 9.1 in 2007 (measured per 100,000). During roughly the same period, violent crime rates in the United States also dropped, from 851 in 1995 to 520 in 2009, measured for males, per 100,000. Thus if violent video games were causing widespread increases in violent behavior, this effect is not visible. Though it is possible the effect is simply masked by drastic reductions in some other influence, this does not seem likely.
Although violence in video games may negatively affect some players (making them more prone to violent behavior in real life), this does not appear to be the experience in practice for large numbers of players. Perhaps it is analogous to alcohol use. Although a few people may be prone to alcoholism and the bad behavior often associated with intoxication, most people do not succomb to the negative effects. Therefore, just as for alcohol use, some precautions are in order for violent video games. Before jumping into playing the games (or allowing one’s children to play a particular game), some precautions are in order.
Young children are less likely to use good discernment in which games they play nor realize if they are becoming too intensely immersed in the game. Parents have a responsibility to carefully review games before purchasing them. Game ratings from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) are present on every game package sold in the US and should be examined carefully. These ratings provide guidelines suggesting the appropriate age for a child to play the game. The ratings get progressively more restrictive, from E (Everyone) to E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) to T (Teen) and so forth. (http://www.esrb.org/ratings/ratings_guide.jsp)
At the very least, parents should use the ESRB rating system, but they may want to set stricter standards on the necessary age before their child may play a game with a certain rating (whether played at home or at a friend’s home). Furthermore, I encourage parents to follow-up after purchase, by playing or watching the games themselves to confirm their pre-purchase review was accurate. Some games may be rated a bit lower by the ESRB than the parent may find appropriate, so while the rating is a good starting place, every game needs to be personally evaluated. Other parents sometimes post blogs that can also help you compare notes. Sound familiar? It is not unlike how parents should approach evaluating movies for their children to watch. There are several helpful Christian review sites that examine most popular games soon after they are released. Here are three sites to consider. They all provide an extensive set of reviews on recent game releases. I asked my college-age son to read the reviews for two video games he plays regularly, on each of the three sites. He found all three sites to report accurately on the good and the bad parts of each game (though interestingly, he thought the parent and kid ratings estimating the appropriate age for the games to be a bit low.)
- Common Sense Media is the most user-friendly of the sites. It includes quick reference summary evaluation scores and a short narrative description. it also lets the users weigh in with parent and kid estimates of the appropriate age for playing a game.
- Christ Centered Gamer has longer narrative descriptions of the games, but no summary stats.
- Focus on the Family: Plugged In also provides longer narrative summaries, but again, no summary stats.
As children become mature, they should develop the self-discipline to evaluate games themselves and monitor their own game playing behavior. For example, they need to develop the self-control to prevent addiction, or simply to ensure that game play doesn’t become an excuse to avoid school work. Older children playing more violent games should take precautions when younger siblings are nearby. They must be responsible not only for themselves, but for younger family members.
Even high-school and college-age players are vulnerable to game addiction. Most college counselors are aware of multiple cases of students flunking out of their classes because they were drawn into a game so completely that they neglected their studies (and often neglected their own physical health, losing sleep and eating irregularly). The addiction is so subtle that other players must really mentor each other and hold each other accountable. Fellow gamers are the most likely to notice the warning signs and they also have the credibility to speak the truth to an addict. Is your friend missing from class too much? Are they playing just one more level instead of studying for the big test? Are they missing a meal here or there?
The Next Level
“Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.” (NIV, Philippians 4:8)
It is difficult to see how gratuitous violence and gore—whether in a movie, book, or a video game—could be considered noble or admirable. Does Paul’s admonition to the church in Philippi then call us to refrain from violent video games? Not necessarily. There may be some redemptive value even in these games. Collaboration on a team and overcoming obstacles could be considered noble. Developing tactical skills such as understanding how to use terrain to one’s advantage could be considered admirable. If a competitor has soundly trounced you in a game because of superior ability, offering a compliment such as “well played” instills a sense of good sportsmanship. Sharing tips with friends can help form community.
If you are a gamer yourself, this might be a good day to take stock. Are you keeping your priorities straight? How many hours do you spend on gaming compared to other activities? How is your temper lately? Do you keep your emotions in check? Or when things go badly at work or with family, do you find yourself daydreaming about the game as a “solution”?
Do you have friends who are gamers or perhaps you are a parent of gamers? Would you know if they were becoming addicted? Would you know if the games were inappropriately warping their personalities, goals, or emotional balance? A true friend, a good parent, will observe and watch for the telltale signs of trouble.
What Do I Really Need?
Monday, June 18, 2012By Steven H. VanderLeest
What do I really need? “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at…. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, p. 67.) Our technological products—the gadgets and devices we invent—have the promise and potential to do noble things, to expand human flourishing, to empower the weak, to bring justice to the wronged. But Thoreau saw the flaw already back in 1854. Our technology is a tool that makes us more powerful, but we too easily sink into using these tools for the trivial and the base.
What do I really need? When we are careless and unthoughtful in our development of technology, we sink to the lowest common denominator of human needs, wants, and desires. Although market forces sometimes push technology development towards innovative solutions that optimize use of resources, not all natural resources are monetized, and thus unconsidered development is less than optimal or even wasteful with these resources. For example, without external pressure, development strategies that reduce air pollution will not necessarily be pursued. The external pressure might be governmental regulation, but it might also be a cultural shift, such as a grassroots movement toward more fuel-efficient vehicles that drives a market shift to meet this newly perceived consumer desire. Grassroots efforts to value natural resources better have taken the form of ecological movements, environmentalism, and lately, sustainability. Christians have always been called to care for the creation. This calling is often called stewardship. Christian stewardship is a concept we often hear preached in sermons about the church’s finances and the obligation for members to give. Unfortunately, for many Christians, stewardship thus ends at their pocket book. Once they have written a check, they don’t expect further responsibility. But stewardship is a much richer principle, with meaning beyond simply tithing part of one’s income. It is the awesome responsibility that humans are given in the first chapter of Genesis, to care for the entire creation as God’s appointed stewards.
What do I really need? As caretakers of creation, the focus shifts from what I need to what others need. We start with care and love of our fellow humans. Justice calls us to provide fair treatment to all. Justice includes giving a fair consideration to everyone in the eyes of the law. “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” (Proverbs 29:7, NIV) Justice includes giving everyone access to basic needs such as water, food, and shelter, perhaps also things like education, job opportunities, or health care. Gandhi noted that the natural resources our planet contains are sufficient to our needs, but not sufficient to insatiable greed: “I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own immediate use and keep it I thieve it from somebody else. I venture to suggest that it is the fundamental law of Nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our wants from day to day, and if only everybody took enough for himself and nothing more, there would be no pauperism in this world.” (M. K. Gandhi, Trusteeship, Navjeevan Trust Publication - Ahmedabad, 1960, Page 3. http://www.gandhi-manibhavan.org/main/q4.htm)
What do others need? As creation’s stewards, we look beyond our fellow humans to the rest of God’s creation—both living and non-living. “The righteous care for the needs of their animals.” (Proverbs 12:10, NIV) Other creatures of God’s making also deserve our care and respect, though in different ways. I might care for a bird or frog differently than a rock or ocean wave. As God’s steward of creation, I am called to respect them all, even when I use that resource for my own sustenance, or perhaps especially then.
How do I balance my needs with the needs of others? Sustainability concepts can help us find an appropriate balance. I am reminded of the old saw about rights. My right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose. Similarly Gandhi’s point is that my right to pursue my “wants” ends at the point when it crimps someone else’s ability to satisfy their needs. The most common definition of sustainability captures this idea. Commonly known as the Brundtland Report, it defines the term thus:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
- the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
- the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.
( Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future , World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987. Published as Annex to General Assembly document A/42/427, August 2, 1987)
A statement on sustainability at Calvin College expands on this idea a bit, starting with God’s care of creation and leading to promotion of flourishing: “We seek to live as part of the natural world in ways that mirror the care and love God has for the creation. To live in a sustainable fashion means our daily activities will be conducted in such a manner that they do not seriously jeopardize, but instead promote, the well being of other people, other species, and the ability of future generations of all creatures to flourish.”
Moving a whole community to flourishing requires some knowledge about how the system works. While attending a sustainability workshop recently, I learned more about systems thinking. As an electrical engineer, I was already familiar with some of the terminology, such as reinforcing loops and feedback. The workshop encouraged us to think about broader systems, beyond just technology, e.g., economic or political systems. Donella Meadows, in her book Thinking in Systems, presents a list of means to change a system. Near the top of her list, in terms of its effectiveness, is to change the goal of a system. To reach a more sustainable world, our goal must shift from accumulating more resources to using them more effectively. Individually that means giving up the race to accumulate more toys and focusing more on healthy flourishing. Nationally, that means moving the definition of economic health from a focus on growth in production (a fancy name for a national accumulation of more toys) to a focus on flourishing as a society. I am not calling for a technology-free society nor a return to frontier life. Rather, I am suggesting we redouble our efforts to use technology more wisely, keeping in mind improved ends such as flourishing for all of creation when we choose to utilize the resources God has placed before us.