Do Calculators and GPS Make Us Stupid?
Wednesday, January 18, 2012By Steven H. VanderLeest
“I’m not learning any more math.” That was the firm declaration of one of my best friends in fourth grade. He decided that he only needed to know how to use a calculator—all the rest was useless drivel that wouldn’t really matter in the “real” world. Why bother knowing how to multiply when you could punch it out on the calculator? Need any more convincing? Things could get even uglier, making the calculator yet more attractive. Consider the two words that could make even the nerdiest fourth grader shudder: long division.
I encountered the calculator math mentality again when I was a teen. Working in the family business, I learned to work the cash register and count back change. “That will be $10.56, please”. The customer hands me a twenty dollar bill. “Thank-you. Here is your change”. I hand her four pennies (all at once), then four dimes (all at once), then 4 dollars one at a time, then a five dollar bill, calling out successively: “That’s 10.60, 11 dollars, 12 dollars, 13, 14, 15, and 5 makes $20.” If I had simple placed $9.44 in her hand, she would have given me a questioning look, if not outright asked me to double-check. Reverse that today. By the time I left the family business a few years later, the cash registers were getting smarter, reporting the amount of change to return to the customer. Today, a cashier punches in the price along with the amount of cash from the customer, and then the cash register displays the amount of change to be returned (perhaps evening spitting out the required coins automatically into a dish). Counting back change would be a strange, anachronistic ritual today. Most younger customers wouldn’t understand what was happening. Knowing how to add or subtract is not required of a modern cashier—and certainly not long division!
Today the trend continues. I recently advised a transfer student in our engineering program who was having trouble in his second calculus course. It turned out that he had taken the first calc course elsewhere, but the course was so watered down so that he merely skimmed over all the concepts using a calculator. He only knew how to punch in a problem—which didn’t help when, during the second course, it became important to understand what was going on “under the hood” and to know what questions to ask in the first place (not simply which numbers to punch in the calculator).
A similar phenomenon is the lost art of map reading. Why bother understanding a legend or knowing how to measure a distance using the map scale when a GPS navigation system will take care of all that for you? I admit that I have succumbed to the lure of this gadget. Even though I am good with directions, I have a GPS navi unit in my vehicle. I love the ability to estimate time to arrival, show alternate routes, identify nearby gas stations or restaurants, and more.
The fear that technology would make us less intelligent or even less human is not new. Plato feared the new technology of writing. He “recognized that writing compacts the large and living structure of natural information and feared that detached parcels of written information, easily acquired, would take the place of genuine wisdom, arduously earned. Writing, he thought, would promote both vanity and stupidity.” (Albert Borgmann, Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 48) Thousands of years later, we should still take care that our technology does not lead to vanity and stupidity.
Maybe it is acceptable that we use calculators instead of doing arithmetic in our heads, that we use GPS instead of reading a paper map. These technologies can usually perform computational tasks faster than humans. Tools that extend our abilities are not evil per se. However, technological convenience can lead to sloth, laziness, or negligence. Our technology can enable vice. The tool is not a neutral bystander in these temptations. Its very nature lures us by its usefulness and lulls us into complacency.
How do we avoid this slippery slope? If it is too strong a temptation, then perhaps we need to avoid those technologies altogether. That would be unfortunate, because much good can come from the power of technology. To what purpose should we put the extra time that we have saved? Rather than seeking more convenience (which usually means simply increasing our leisure time), labor-saving technologies can help us serve God and serve others if we capitalize on that convenience by thinking more deeply about the results our technology quickly serves up, by asking significant and probing questions, by laboring more humanly in place of the mechanistic labor we are spared. We ourselves will flourish and develop into more thoughtful people of integrity if we take proper advantage of our tools. Calculators do not make us stupid—unless we let them.
The End of Technology
Wednesday, January 04, 2012By Steven H. VanderLeest
A colleague at DornerWorks, Rick Bemmann, recently mentioned that he believed technology development has been slowing down—to the point we may be reaching the end of new development. There is some evidence for his hypothesis. The added features in the next cell phone to come out are quite minimal when compared to the sea change we experienced when the first cell phone unchained us from a land line. The final space shuttle flight slightly more than 40 years after the first moon landing (and 50 after Sputnik) was a bittersweet end of an era—many of us technology geeks who lived during the early years of man’s ventures into space had grand visions of human exploration of the outer space beyond our planet. Today that vision is much reduced, if not extinguished. The horseless carriage introduced a century ago was a game-changer technology that revolutionized society. A hundred years later, our automobiles might look a bit different, but relatively speaking, they are rather similar to the Ford Model-T when compared to a horse. The performance has not improved all that much either. The Model-T got up to 21 miles per gallon (Ford Media ), right on par with the average mileage of modern vehicles. Air travel is much faster than automobile, train, or ship, but the latest aircraft offers little more than the previous generation—perhaps you now have WiFi on board. On the whole, it does appear that we have plateaued. The dramatic pace of development we have seen in the last century seems to have slowed to a trickle.
This same theme of diminishing returns appears in an opinion piece titled “Taking Innovation for Granted” (Philip E. Ross, IEEE Spectrum, January 2012), also available as “Don’t Let Innovation Languish”. Ross alludes to an earlier book, The Great Stagnation , by Tyler Cowen, which makes the point that most of our recent innovations have simply been revisions on earlier inventions, little knock-offs that make small, incremental improvements.
I have also hinted as this slow-down in a blog last year, “Beautiful Challenges”. However, I also pointed out that there are plenty of big challenges yet for us to tackle. I regularly spur my engineering students to consider the really tough problems, to make a difference in the world with the technology they develop. I want to see engineers and scientists going after world hunger and providing clean drinking water to all. I don’t think we should settle for hybrid vehicles that get only marginally better mileage than their traditional gas engine counterparts. Let’s continue to seek new drugs and medicines to reduce disease and suffering—including cautious use of genetic engineering. We can accelerate our research on renewable energy sources. I’d like to see convenient light rail inside more cities and high-speed rail between more of them. I’d like to see more foods on the grocery shelves that taste great but are actually healthy too. I’d like to see stronger protection of electronic data to prevent identity theft.
However, I’m no technicist. Technology is no panacea. My own experience tells me so. I’ve lost important files in a computer crash, I’ve been stranded with a car that wouldn’t start, and I’ve had to throw away spoiled food when our deep freezer failed. Our societal experience also tells me that technology is no savior. The last century has seen incredible technological innovation, but also terrible destruction. For example, nuclear power has helped ease our dependence on oil and reduced our pollution of the atmosphere, but we have also seen the dark side of this powerful energy source in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukishima. Another example is our increased use of disposable packaging, resulting in mountains of garage in landfills that doesn’t decay as fast as we pile it on.
Our Christian faith also tells me that technology is no savior. God calls us to trust in him, not in our own strength, nor our own wealth, nor idols, nor military might. That doesn’t mean we cannot use technology, simply that it should not be our ultimate foundation nor an end in itself. So are we reaching the end of technology? No, I think we are simply in a temporary lull. Such a pause can serve a useful purpose, allowing us to take stock of the technology we now have at our disposal and consider the end of technology in a different light—what is the goal, the “end” to which we will put these tools?
All I Want for Christmas
Tuesday, December 13, 2011By Steven H. VanderLeest
Who is your favorite superhero? A few years ago I reconnected with Carl, a childhood friend, who reminded me that as kids, one of our favorite role-playing games was to play superhero. He needled me because I always wanted to be Superman. Of course! The Man of Steel was the champion of justice who was invulnerable, incredibly strong, and could fly. For a scrawny first grader who sometimes got picked on by the playground bully, those were rather attractive attributes, even if only for daydreams.
If I were to pick my favorite superhero today, it would be a different story. You can’t grow up to be Superman—you must be born with it. So these days I’m more attracted to the superhero who gets by on his wits, one who enhances his merely mortal senses and skills with instruments and technology. His gadgets are always at the ready to get him out of a tight spot. Sure, even with the technology, he still needs to work out to stay physically fit. Even with the technology (including some impressive body armor), he takes a lot of grueling punishment at the hand of some of the evil villains he fights. But those limitations and struggles make him a bit more human: a hero with whom I can empathize. Guess who yet? That’s right—I’d pick Batman. He is a prime candidate as the superhero for a technological society.
Technology is a tool, an instrument to enhance capability. Much of the attraction of technology is because it amplifies our abilities, making us each a superhero of sorts. We can extend our vision with telescopes to see farther, microscopes to see closer, MRI and X-Ray machines to see inside. We can extend our limbs with tweezers to grab small slivers, hammers to pound harder, stilts to stand taller. Technology not only makes individuals more powerful, but it also makes nations more formidable. Military inventions have often provided the decisive factor in battle. Think of the advantage of the crossbow over the older bow and arrow. Think of the advantage of aircraft over exposed land troops. Think of the ominous threat of thermonuclear warheads delivered by missile.
Technology is a tool, a means to an end. Its primary worth is practical, instrumental, and utilitarian. We value it because of what it can do. A tool that does a job well is good; a tool that also does the job transparently, so that you hardly notice the tool itself, is exceptional.
Technology is a tool, part of what makes us human. There are professionals that develop new gadgets, processes, and devices. However, technology is too important to be left to the experts. We all have a stake in it: both the benefits and the potential harms accrue to all users. Our culture and society is heavy on tech, intertwining government,music, literature, and more with technological aspects. The technological devices and infrastructure—from tiny transistors to massive bridges—are themselves cultural artifacts. While engineers might design tech products for a living, we all have an innate tool-making ability. If you’ve ever used a piece of gum on a stick to retrieve a tiny item, you’ve invented your own tool. If you’ve ever used a broom or rake to dislodge a toy that got caught in a tree limb, you’ve improvised your own tool. We all have a little Batman in us.
Unlike technology, people ought never be our means to an end. Treating people as tools to achieve our own objectives is to treat them with disrespect. As God’s creatures and particularly as image-bearers of the Creator, people deserve dignity, deserve respect, deserve to be treated as ends and not means. When we use someone, we make them an unwitting slave to our own desires. Those of us working daily with technological devices and products are especially prone to seeing all the world as a tool. We easily fall into the trap of assigning primary worth by what a person does. For example, when you first meet someone, how quickly does the conversation turn to asking what your new acquaintance does for a living? How often to we adulate athletes for their physical prowess or admire singers because of their melodic voices? While appreciation of skills is natural and even respectful, if we only see the person for that skill or ability, we have done them an injustice. We have not seen the whole person.
While we should take care to avoid treating people as tools, the turnabout is not only fair, it is a calling. When we choose to serve the needs of others, we choose to make ourselves a tool, becoming the means to help another achieve their ends. Our tendency to identify with our work is a healthy habit if we choose to be tools in God’s hands. Such service, freely given, is admirable. Such service is our calling as servants of the Lord most high.
Mary chose to be God’s instrument. When facing the angel Gabriel and learning of God’s will concerning a child that would be conceived within her by the Holy Spirit, she concluded: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38, NIV) She chose to be a tool in God’s hands, achieving not her own will, but God’s.
As kids we were always ready with an answer to “What do you want for Christmas?” We had long lists of gift suggestions for our parents and grandparents, hoping for the latest toy or game. The first Christmas certainly was a celebration and brought the ultimate gift to humankind, but to focus on gifts for ourselves this coming Christmas would be to miss the point of that gift. God the Son became flesh. Christ the King poured out his life as a sacrifice to accomplish God’s will. We are God’s hands and feet, to do his will in this world. We are his tools. This Christmas, instead of considering what you hope to receive, consider what you hope to be: an instrument of God.
Thursday, December 01, 2011By Steven H. VanderLeest
Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. Genesis 2:19-20 (NIV)
The story of Adam naming the animals is within the context of God providing a suitable companion. He creates Eve immediately after this episode in the Genesis creation story. This short preamble to the creation of woman is itself an amazing tale—the act of naming is the creation of language. What an astonishing gift, what an incredible act of delegation, for God to allow Adam to name all the animals that God himself had created. I think this is probably one aspect of God ordaining humans to be stewards of his creation and also an indication that God gave humans an ongoing role in the dynamic unfolding of that creation.
The work of naming has never ended. Two chapters later, we learn that Tubal-Cain was forging tools out of iron (a natural material) and bronze (an alloy that was an invention of human creativeness). It isn’t clear whether Tubal-Cain himself invented these tools and the alloy of bronze—but the mention of this specific career of an early blacksmith is notable. Tubal-Cain was unfolding the creation by putting earthly resources to practical use. The new inventions needed new names. Today, scientists continue this work of Adam and Tubal-Cain. When they discover a new star, a new chemical, or a new biological process, one of the first orders of business is to name it. Today, engineers continue this same work of naming. When they develop a new gadget, a new manufacturing technique, or a new algorithm, one of the first orders of business is to name it.
When developing a new system architecture or electronic component, I have often found it an enjoyable challenge to come up with just the right name for it, one that fits its function and evokes the right connotations, a name that has a nice ring to it. I think that joy of naming is because it is part of that creative ability that God gave us starting with Adam. Next time you need to name something, take joy in the naming: you are unfolding a little more of God’s good creation.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011By Steven H. VanderLeest
I am thankful to God for many blessings. I am thankful for the recent birth of our first grandchild. I am thankful for a daughter opening a new chapter in her life by serving for a year in AmeriCorps. I am thankful for those moments in our church worship service when the Spirit moves people to sing from their hearts in authentic worship. I am thankful for the tomatoes that grow in a little pot on our back deck, slowly turning from green to red. My gratitude extends to warm and water-proof winter boots, old friends that contact me out of the blue, the smell of freshly baked pumpkin pie, the flash of a hawk swooping just past my car in search of a mouse on the side of the road, and the slow, majestic turn of Orion through the crisp winter sky.
My thanksgiving also extends to technology—and why not? These are also good gifts from God’s hand. Just because the farmer toiled to grow a crop of golden wheat does not negate the gift and he ought not neglect to say a prayer of thanks. Just because the engineer toiled to design a new computer chip does not negate the gift and she ought not neglect to also give thanks. Perhaps especially because we are stewards of creation, we should be grateful for our role and grateful for the creatures (living and non-living) under our care.
Since all good things come from God’s hand, let’s be mindful to give thanks for our tech. Thank God for electric guitars. Thank God for GPS navigation in your car. Thank him for wrinkle-resistant shirts, smartphone apps that help you remember the name of a tune, care pages on the web that let you send a get-well wish, and indoor plumbing. Let’s be thankful for amazing planes, trains, and automobiles. Let’s be thankful for beautiful bridges, power tools, and MRI machines. (I’m even thankful for that little wire ring that helps hold up my tomatoes.) The devices, gadgets, and technologies that surround us are all bountiful blessings from the Lord. Let us give thanks!