Joe Lost His Job
Wednesday, October 23, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
Who stole Joe’s job? Joe was just an ordinary guy working at the fast food joint on 28th street, the local restaurant alley in Grand Rapids. He was good with customers, greeting them with a smile and cheery “hello” while he got their beverage orders. It never got too complicated. The menu offered a handful of different soft drinks, plus ice tea or water. He filled the cups with ice (unless the customer specifically asked for less) and then bumped the proper lever for the selected drink. He was quick and efficient, often filling two cups simultaneously and rarely spilling an order. He juggled new orders and free refills with calm self-assurance. Joe arrived promptly for work—never late a day in his life. He took his job seriously but he also got along with all the employees with an easy-going style and good sense of humor. Joe wasn’t greedy—just simply trying to make a living.
As such an excellent employee, why would the boss fire him? Technically he was “let go” because they were downsizing, but to Joe, it felt as emotionally hostile as being fired. He had dedicated years of his life to this work. Was there no loyalty? Was there no compassion?
It turns out that when they remodeled the restaurant, this included a new drink dispenser. However, instead of putting the dispenser behind the counter, the new one was in the customer area. Once customers could get their own drinks, Joe wasn’t needed anymore. In fact, even Joe had to admit that customers didn’t mind it. After all, they could decide just how much ice to add. They could get refills faster—rarely with any waiting compared to the old system of coming up to the counter and getting Joe’s attention. Sure, someone has to wipe down the counter area regularly and clean up the occasional spill, but the task no longer required full time attention. The syrup and carbonation canisters needed replacing regularly, but that was a quick job too. Joe didn’t know it, but the boss had made a simple financial calculation. Joe was paid $9.20 an hour, plus he got some minimal benefits. Add in various taxes, insurance, unemployment, employer share of social security, along with all the other overhead and it added up to over $15 an hour. In just three months, it cost over $7,000 to retain Joe as an employee. The drink dispenser was under $5,000. The cost of supplies was the same either way. Joe needed occasional breaks, needed vacation time, and he got sick once in a while. The dispenser was continuously on duty. Plus they could actually run customers through the line faster during the lunch and dinner rush with the new machine than they could with Joe. If the wait got too long, that meant lost business when people chose to go elsewhere to get their meal fast. With the competition squeezing them, Isabella, the boss, saw this as a matter of survival. She needed to produce the product quickly and inexpensively, else her customers would simply go elsewhere. The boss wasn’t greedy—she was simply trying to make a living and serve her customers well.
Did the drink dispenser steal Joe’s job? If it wasn’t for this insidious machine, Joe would still have his job. It is easy to blame technology for job losses, a tradition that goes back to the Luddites who took to the streets in England after massive layoffs, smashing textile machinery in the early 1800’s. The theme of man against machine has been common since the industrial revolution. The ballad of John Henry honors the prowess of a railway steel driver competing to drive his hammer faster than a new steam-driven hammering machine, winning the race as he drew his last breath. Today that debate continues. The most recent round includes stories and editorials on the self-driving car . Another recent editorial looks more broadly at lays out the case for “how technology is destroying jobs” .
While I concur that technology has a built-in bias which results in a diverse array of consequences (some unanticipated), I think this approach inappropriately demonizes technology. Let me unpack that a bit. First, I do not perceive technology as neutral. When we design a solution to a problem embodied in a technological product, that technology inevitably reflects its creator. We build in a predisposed bias that is intentional in some respects, since we intend for the technology to perform certain functions. We also build in bias without realizing it until later, when unintended consequences arise. Bias means that our tools work better for some purposes than others (a hammer is more biased to pound nails than a screwdriver). Bias means we tend to use a tool in the direction of those biases, so we tend to use a hammer for pounding. Secondly, bias does not mean agency (defined as the capability to take action or cause something). I do not fall in with the philosophers such as Ellul who perceive technology as a force in and of itself. I think blaming technology for loss of a job is a very narrow focus that misses the real culprit. The drink dispenser did not force its way into the restaurant and eject Joe. Rather, the business owner chose to use a lower cost means to accomplish an end. But is the owner the culprit here? No, the owner felt that she had to make adjustments in order to keep the business afloat and retain the jobs of all the other employees. Consumers demanded fast and very inexpensive service and that meant she hardly had a choice but to install the dispenser. Are the restaurant patrons the culprit here? The typical customers are on very short lunch breaks from rather demanding jobs that don’t pay all that well. So while they can sympathize with Isabella for needing to squeeze her budget and even more so with Joe who lost his job, their own budgets are squeezed. Thus technology is simply part of a long chain of causes and effects which touch on societal values and economic forces that form a large, complex system.
However, this complexity doesn’t lead me to despair like Ellul. Rather, I think it means we should roll up our sleeves and get to work tackling these challenges more thoughtfully. Individually we often have at least a little latitude to make choices for the better. As a society we have also have some latitude to organize the way we work and live together as a community with choices for the better. Of course there are trade-offs and hard constraints. Nevertheless, if we use some system engineering to look at the big picture and follow consequences through the whole chain of causes and effects, I believe we can make a positive difference.
Christians should seek this positive difference and they have a good sense for the way things ought to be, for shalom. Christians are called to be redemptive agents in this world, transforming our culture in service to our God and in love of our fellow creatures. However, our pursuit of the Kingdom of God and of justice must be tempered with humility. We can as easily get tunnel vision as the next guy. When we cry “injustice” at the loss of a job, it is important that we step back and think about the whole system so that we tackle the core problem: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854).
Wednesday, September 11, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
Monk would make a great engineer. I don’t mean the monk that dedicates his life to quiet solitude in an abbey. Rather, I mean Adrian Monk, the fictional detective of the eponymous USA Network series. Monk is a great detective, but his defining characteristic is his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD for most of us, CDO for those who have it and therefore the letters should be in alphabetical order). It might seem odd that a great detective also has a multitude of phobias and neuroses. This awkward combination of strength and fragility make for compelling and hilarious episodes. Great observational powers and OCD are not unrelated. Monk often solves the mystery by noticing small inconsistencies that others breeze over. Breaks in a pattern are jarring for him, so they stand out. Monk is a great detective not in spite of his compulsions, but because of them.
OCD is also a handy characteristic for engineers. Inconsistency is a telltale sign of a problem. Good engineers have a good eye for breaks in the pattern. When reviewing a design, there are a number of red flags that pop out at us as potential problems because we see a disparity:
- measurement outside the norm
- unusual combination of characteristics
- intermittent or odd behavior during testing
- gaps in analysis
- missing test case
- parameters out of order
OCD is handy for scientists too. The most interesting phenomenon is the one that is out of place. It is the signal that there is more here than meets the eye. “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny…’” (Isaac Asimov)
An inconsistent design is certainly incorrect. Observing two inconsistent measurements almost certainly means one or both are wrong. The converse, however, is not necessarily true. Consistent design could be consistently incorrect; consistent measurements could be systemically wrong. In the discipline of systems engineering, this contrast is the key difference between validation and verification. Validation confirms that one is pursuing the correct requirements and specifications—solving the real problem. Validation is “do the right thing”. Verification confirms we are pursuing a goal in a consistent manner. Verification is “do the thing right”. Verification without validation leaves us vulnerable to solving the wrong problem. Validation without verification leaves us vulnerable to incorrectly solving the right problem.
Many good engineers and scientists settle for mere verification in their professional lives. If our solution is elegant and clever, we are satisfied. We rarely consider whether the solution is to the correct problem. It is easy to claim all science and engineering is morally neutral, so that we need not worry about the ends and goals of our work. If we do our job correctly, that is enough. If we are simply consistent, that is sufficient. Unfortunately, this bliss is ignorance. It is not enough and not sufficient. When we solve a problem incorrectly, i.e., get verification wrong, we may have made an honest mistake or perhaps might be guilty of negligence. Verification addresses technical questions of correctness which may rise to the level of a moral question if we are negligent or worse, purposely subversive. Thus, verification may occasionally address moral questions. In the case of validation, moral questions frequently arise. When we solve the wrong problem, i.e., get validation wrong, we may have made an honest mistake, not thinking carefully enough about choice of goals. However, our selection of problem is often a moral choice from the start, because choosing which problem we will tackle amounts to assigning values. It is a matter of prioritization and thus a matter of worth when we choose which scientific research program to pursue or which engineering problem to address.
Let me provide one case study to bring this point home. In the 1930s. IBM was engineering punch card systems to enhance the efficiency of train schedules. They excelled at verification, ensuring that the machines could quickly and accurately compute the schedules. Narrowly speaking, they perhaps thought about validation, customizing their general-purpose calculating device to the needs of scheduling a complex network of trains. Broadly speaking, they did not consider this a moral question, even though their customer was none other than Nazi Germany. Hitler’s Third Reich was using the machines to improve the effectiveness of their program to exterminate the Jews. Worse, according to at least one published report, IBM knew the end-purposes of their customer, yet continued to work closely with them right up to the time of the US entry into World War II. (Paul Festa, “Probing IBM’s Nazi connection,” 28 June 2001,
http://news.cnet.com/2009-1082-269157.html ). The engineers and managers at IBM had verified, but not validated, at least not in the broadest and most important sense.
Christians working in technology areas ought to pay attention to both V’s. Verification is important because we should do exemplary work that is accurate and correct. “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.” (NIV, Colossians 3:17) Validation is even more important because we should honor God’s will in the questions we choose to pursue. “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)
The End of Camping
Wednesday, August 07, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
Our last camping trip. For 25 years, from when our kids were very young until now when the youngest is in college and (mostly) out of the house, we have made the trek to county and state campgrounds several times each summer. We started with a borrowed tent and over the years worked our way up to our own tent, then a bigger tent, then two tents. Tents gave way to a pop-up travel trailer (or “fold-down”, depending on whether you’re coming or going), then finally an ultra-light hardside trailer with fold-out tents. Those idyllic days came to an end when we decided to give it up, particularly because campfires had started triggering my wife’s asthma.
Why do people go camping? Camping trailers are small and cramped. The weather is often inclement—tents seem to attract the rain. Campfires can be finicky with wet wood. The sun burns you by day and mosquitos bite you at night. While staying at the state campground, the people in the lot on the right can’t keep their dog from incessantly barking all night, but at least that drowns out the drinking party going on in the lot to the left. Every time the camper comes out of winter storage, something needs repair before you can hit the road. There is all that packing of clothes and food to prepare, and then all those clothes to wash when you get home. Camping is a pain.
Yet we still go. These are all minor inconveniences compared to the joys of “roughing it”. Camping allows us to get away from it all, whatever “all” might be. Food always tastes better after a day of hiking, swimming, and biking and then cooking the meal over an open fire. S’mores are a delicious dessert to finish it off. Family time comes easily, with the kids at the beach for the day, or taking a walk with one’s spouse in the early evening. We play water balloon games, hobo golf, miniature golf, tag, and frisbee games. Sitting around the campfire that night, lively discussions range from sports to politics, from the trivial events of the day to long range career plans. We all have a good laugh when someone accidentally drops their hot dog into the fire or doesn’t notice their marshmallow has caught fire and it quickly turns black.
In fact, it is often the little hardships that draw us closer. Those funny little moments form a shared bond. We remember some of the worst moments best, when we all had to pull together to deal with a big problem. For years afterwards, we remembered the time we woke up to the sound of distant thunder on the last morning of camping during a long Memorial Day weekend at School Section Lake park in Mecosta County, Michigan. The rain hadn’t started yet, so in order to avoid having to pack everything up wet and then dry it all at home, we leaped into action. Everyone flew in different directions to gather up our belongings and get them tucked away. Ever darkening clouds were advancing overhead, but the rain still held off. We were almost done: just a few more things to go. Then it hit. The heavens opened and the floods came down. The rains swept across the park in torrential sheets. This was not just a light drizzle; this was an ocean crashing in. The awning on our trailer still had to be rolled up and the camper folded down. With a deluge streaming right into my face, I could hardly keep my eyes open while trying to secure the awning to its traveling position. The kids scrambled to pick up the last few items strewn around the campsite and toss them in the side storage unit, dripping with water and a little mud. We finally got everything squirreled away, got the trailer hitched up, and jumped into our van, all soaking wet to the skin. Everyone sat silently shocked and shivering for a moment. And then we all laughed. What an adventure!
Camping is not very convenient and not very efficient. Yet we are drawn to that experience because we get a deeper connection with each other and with nature. Perhaps there is a lesson here: that we need not and ought not always prioritize convenience and efficiency. In a technological world, convenience is often a good thing because it frees us from drudgery in order to pursue more noble ends. Efficiency is often a good thing because it implies good stewardship of our natural resources. However, convenience can quickly become a euphemism for sloth or laziness. Efficiency can easily become a pretense for greed.
Design of technology implies attention to attributes such as efficiency and effectiveness because technology is a tool, an instrument. Our tools are always means to an end, so we naturally evaluate the effectiveness of those means. The danger, then, is the temptation to elevate those criteria by focusing solely on the tool without looking at the bigger picture. Technology can serve us well if we use it appropriately to achieve good ends. What ends are good? Jesus tells us the most important commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). If we use technology to love God and neighbor better, then our tools have served their purpose well. Micah 6:8 tells us that the Lord requires us to “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” If our technology creates injustice, if our drive for efficiency leaves us merciless, if the power of our gadgets makes us proud, then our tools have failed us—or worse, have enslaved us. Getting away from it all, whether by camping or other means, is not important because modern technology is evil. Technology is not inherently evil, though it can be corrupted and misdirected. Getting away is important so that we can get some intellectual distance from our tools, giving us a chance to evaluate our priorities within the grand context of our calling. Perhaps the end of camping should be the end towards which we work in all things: to serve God and neighbor.
Welcome to the Fishbowl: Is there a Right to Privacy?
Monday, June 24, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
Edward Snowden is on the run. He is crisscrossing the globe to evade US authorities trying to apprehend him for leaking information about a government program to collect broad swaths of data regarding the phone calls of its own citizens. The existence of such programs was previously denied by US intelligence officials—James Clapper, director of national intelligence , justified his original denial that the government collected such broad data by explaining he was forced to use the “least untruthful” statement in order to keep the program secret. Now that the program has been outed, these same officials tell us not to worry, they aren’t actually listening in on our phone calls, merely recording the time and destination of the call. However, given that officials felt compelled to tell “untruths” about the programs in public testimony before congress, it is hard to discern whether these latest statements might be true or false. Stories about (the lack of) privacy come out weekly. This past week’s news not only continued coverage of the Snowden affair, but also informed us of the FBI using drones domestically and Facebook’s shadow profiles that collected and collated data on its users from external sources .
These latest articles about the close electronic scrutiny of our everyday lives reminds me of “The Dead Past”, a science fiction short story by Isaac Asimov. The protagonist is a historian, desperately trying to gain access to a chronoscope (a sort of time-machine that lets one see into the past), in order to study the history of ancient Carthage by direct observation. However, the instruments are controlled by a heavily bureaucratic government. After years of red-tape and rejections, he builds his own chronoscope—only to have it quickly confiscated by government agents. It turns out that the instruments have poor resolution so that they cannot go back very far into the past. The government keeps the machines under lock and key because they realize the implications for privacy: the past begins immediately after the present, and thus one can observe another’s private behavior with such a machine that can clearly observe what happened seconds ago. The past is not so dead afterall! The story ends with the inadvertent publication of simple instructions for building a chronoscope and thus privacy is destroyed for all: “Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, …”. It seems that the NSA program to spy on us is the first step to living in such a fishbowl. However, unlike a public fishbowl, when only certain people have access to otherwise private information, that access represents power—and power can be abused.
The US Constitution does not have an explicit right to privacy. However, over the last hundred years the US courts have interpreted several clauses in the Bill of Rights to include privacy, particularly the 4th amendment’s banning of unreasonable search and seizure and the 14th amendment’s prohibition on limiting one’s liberty (extended to include privacy) without due process of law. Other nations have followed suit, giving limited privacy protections to citizens because such benefits have been collectively endorsed by society.
There are legitimate reasons to keep personal information confidential. Privacy helps prevent identity theft. Privacy prevents stigma because of medical conditions or embarrassment because of personal traits or behaviors. Privacy protects intellectual property, such as trade secrets and proprietary information such as a “secret sauce” ingredient.
The secrecy of our data is valuable to us because of the potential harm that comes with its public release. It thus represents a kind of power. Your identifying information enables you to conduct business and obtain services. You share certain information with selected organizations in order to confirm your identity. As long as only you and they know that information, it serves as your ID. However, once you or any of those organizations lose control of that information and it falls into the wrong hands, your ID is no longer secure and others can successfully impersonate you on-line. Thus a thief who steals your identity holds power over you. Likewise, an unscrupulous person who learns of your confidential medical condition could use the power of that information to blackmail you, shaking you down for cash in order to keep the information from going public. Likewise, corporate espionage seeks to balance the power between two companies by stealing intellectual property.
The Bible doesn’t have much to say about privacy. We could infer it from the commandment against stealing, to include stealing someone’s intellectual property, but that seems to be more about justice than an endorsement of privacy. Privacy shows up more explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus exhorts us to keep our giving secret (Matthews 6:3) and keep our prayers secret (Matthew 6:6). However, in both these cases, the purpose of privacy is not to give us power, but rather to avoid prideful pretentiousness. Making our giving or our prayers public would let us show off. Keeping them private keeps them directed to God instead of fellow humans.
In the same sermon, Jesus tells us to avoid judging others, lest we ourselves be judged (Matthew 7:1). His mandate recognizes that we only have a partial picture of our neighbors, and it is wrong for us to judge them without knowing their circumstances fully. Thus there is an implied value for keeping information about others private and not gossiping about it. Albert Borgmann notes the connection between privacy and judgmentalism: “...Thomas Huff has helpfully isolate the notion of privacy as freedom from intrusions that can lead to an unwarranted judgment on the person whose sphere of intimacy has been invaded. Of course, our next of kin, who are naturally members of our personal circle, and our friends, whom we have invited into it, are entitled to judge whatever we do. No one else may without our permission.” (Albert Borgmann, Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003, p. 40.) However, Borgmann then observes that we often use privacy to shield our consumerist behavior from the prying eyes of others. “What Huff calls the privacy norm is in large part the collective affirmation of consumption as an exercise of freedom that would be encumbered by judgmental intrusion.” (p. 43) Materialism is not the only bad behavior we attempt to keep secret. Most sins are private affairs that would shame us if made public: adultery, addictions like alcoholism, domestic abuse, and the list goes on. Electronic anonymity (or at least the perception of it) encourages parallel bad behavior on the net, including online affairs, gambling on the web, and cyber-bullying.
Our legal right to privacy is not absolute—one’s privacy can still be invaded if warranted, i.e., if due process is afforded to ensure the invasion is justified, in the judgment of a fair and unbiased court. This is important to prevent abuse of those rights. Christians should use even more caution when exercising the privilege of privacy, since it is so often merely a pretext to keep our sinful ways out of the light of day. Accountability to others is usually highest to our most intimate associates (spouse, co-worker, family, friends, boss), in part because of their physical proximity, access to our immediate environment, and their ability to regularly observe our behavior. However, privacy allows us to hide from that accountability. For example, we can use encryption to obscure our electronic communication from everyone but the recipient, thus bypassing any accountability lines we might otherwise have to our friends and family. While there might be legitimate reasons for keeping that communication out of the public eye, how do we avoid the temptation to use privacy to hide our bad behavior? Here’s a check. Would you dare let a trustworthy friend review your past week’s email or web browsing history?
“It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible.” (Ephesians 5:12-13, NIV)
“Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.“ (1 Corinthians 4:5, NIV)
Five Things Star Trek Taught Me about Faith
Friday, May 17, 2013By Steven H. VanderLeest
Star Trek is not Christian. Although religious themes often arise in this franchise that includes twelve films (counting Into Darkness, which was released today) and five television series (plus one animated television series), the story lines generally do not overtly support a Christian worldview. Although some characters have a religious faith, that faith is typically portrayed as a peculiarity—simply an aspect of a particular culture or society. Other times the Star Trek hero would debunk the “gods” of a society (despite the Prime Directive prohibiting the Federation from interfering with the natural development of a society). For example, in the film Final Frontier, Captain James Kirk asks “Excuse me. I’d just like to ask a question. What does God need with a starship?” thereby provoking an alien (posing as a deity) into a rage which thus reveals its less-than-divine nature. Nevertheless, the story lines often explored the moral foundations of our own society by imagining our traditions conflicting with those of a fictional alien society.
Star Trek is not Christian—not overtly. However, all the world belongs to God. Every cubic centimeter of the universe falls under the sovereign reign of Christ, the Lord. While writers of novels or film scripts can imagine a world without God, that doesn’t make it so. Science fiction can leave God out, but Christians can still glean wisdom from even atheistic art. God grants rain that waters the gardens of both the wicked and the righteous. He grants rational thought and occasional insights to believers and nonbelievers. Thus I find a sign of God’s grace in the thoughtful gems of philosophy, creative anticipation of future technologies, and moral questions buried in much of science fiction, including Star Trek. To illustrate, consider five virtues central to Christianity that also appear in Star Trek story lines: Justice, Stewardship, Humility, Benevolence, and Responsibility. Spoiler warning: I won’t give away anything about the new film, but I will discuss the entire plot of several episodes and films of the past in my examples below.
Justice is fair treatment of others. God calls his people to act justly throughout the old and new testaments. God is also particularly concerned about those that are less fortunate in society—orphans, widows, the poor. Justice demands that we don’t let the rich bribe their way out of accountability for their actions, nor walk roughshod over the rights of the poor.
In the episode “Measure of a Man” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Commander Bruce Maddox wants to dismantle his fellow officer, the android Lt. Commander Data, in order to learn about him. Maddox is fascinated by Data—as a technology, not as a person. Commander William Riker and Captain Jean Luc Picard are forced into adversarial roles in a court case to decide Data’s fate. Under protest, Riker prosecutes the case to let Maddox have his way. Picard defends Data’s right to choose. During the course of the trial, Riker highlights the superhuman (and therefore inhuman) strength and intelligence of Data. Riker removes Data’s arm, showing the court that Data is “just” a machine. However, because Riker respects Data as a person, not a mere machine, he whispers an apology to Data while doing so. In his most devastating demonstration, Ricker flips a switch at Data’s neck to instantly shut him off. As Data slumps lifeless in his chair, Riker sits down, visibly showing remorse at having “proved” Data is simply a machine and not a sentient being with rights.
For his part, Picard first tries to defend Data by showing how similar Data is to humans. But that tactic fails in the face of Riker’s demonstrations. He then realizes, at Guinan’s prompting, that the true issue is that Data represents a new race. The way humans treat Data hints not as much about the nature of the android but more about our own human nature. Do we treat him as our slave or as our equal? Do we require proof before we no longer treat someone poorly?
With this new strategy in hand, Picard calls Maddox to the stand to explore what it really means to be sentient. Maddox identifies three traits of sentient beings (those that would deserve the right to self-determination): intelligence, self-awareness, consciousness. Picard persuades Maddox to admit Data possess the first two traits. He then convinces Maddox and Philippa Louvoix, the court judge, that the third trait is nearly impossible to measure—that we don’t know how to prove humans, much less anyone else, possess consciousness. Judge Louvoix suggests the heart of this question is the soul, implying this is the true measure of humanity, but concludes we don’t really know who or what can possess a soul. She subsequently rules Data is sentient and grants him the right to self-determination. Data then chooses to decline to submit to Maddox’s plan to dismantle him.
What indeed makes us human? In classes I have taught at Calvin, I sometimes as my students to make a list of characteristics that make us human. They sometimes list the ability to learn or the ability to use tools. They sometimes point to consciousness or the soul, but like Picard, Maddox, and Louvoix, we are quickly stymied when trying to measuring the soul. With Hamlet we ask “what is this quintessence of dust?” Pointing to the soul quickly becomes a circular definition of humanity: only humans have souls; we know someone has a soul because they are human. I myself am hesitant to draw the boundaries of humanness too brightly. In our attempt to define ourselves carefully, we may stray towards arrogance and pride. In drawing boundaries tightly, do we seek power over other creatures? If we require proof of humanness in order to grant rights, do we then create a slippery slope whereby we discard our aged because they are senile or discard are young because they are not yet developed enough in the womb?
When we limit another’s freedom, it can be for our own ease and for their bondage. How we treat others reflects our own character. When I interview candidates for engineering positions at DornerWorks, I often attempt to wander through the coffee kitchen at about the time they are scheduled to arrive, because from there I can observe how they interact with our receptionist at the front desk. Unbeknownst to the visitor, she is not simply a receptionist but rather our office manager. Thus this initial moment is often the most telling interaction, hinting at the true character of the visitor. I look for candidates who treat all others respectfully, not just the boss who might give them a job. Respect of others is a personal virtue that leads us to seek justice in society around us, particularly for those less fortunate. In the fictional Star Trek society, we see that though Maddox has a noble goal, any society that treats some better than others can easily be perverted. In Picard’s defense of Data and his questioning of Maddox’s motives, I hear echos of Orwell’s Animal House, where despite initially noble intentions, eventually “some animals are more equal than others.”
One of the most unusual, but also most beloved episodes of the Star Trek: The Next Generatio was focused almost entirely on one member of the regular cast— Patrick Stewart playing his regular role of Captain Picard—along with a guest cast as the inhabitants of a heretofore unknown world, Kataan. Picard lives a lifetime on Kataan while under the influence of a strange probe for just 20 minutes of real time. He raises a family, having children and then seeing his grandchildren. He learns to love the people and place of Kattan and thus becomes the perfect cultural representative when he returns to consciousness and learns the planet no longer exists because of a supernova long ago, with only the probe remaining—and now Picard feels a kinship with that people and comes to represent a kind of sole survivor.
The deep sense of belonging and community that Picard (known as Kamin) develops is analogous to the Christian sense of calling and vocation that draws us to serve as the body of Christ. We have a deep connection to our neighbors and also to our world as its stewards. God calls us to care for the creation, to cultivate it, to develop it. The story of Kataan tugs at our heart because we innately feel the deep sense of loss when an entire culture is destroyed. That same grief should touch us when the last speaker of an exotic language dies, when an animal or plant species dies out, or when a society is decimated by war so utterly and so long that they lose their traditions and forget their customs.
Some of the best Star Trek episodes and films are those with a strong villain, such as we find in Khan Noonien Singh. The second film released for the Star Trek universe, “The Wrath of Kahn” provided a sequel to the original show episode “Space Seed”. Part of a cryogenically frozen group of superhumans, Kahn proves to be one of Kirk’s toughest foes.
Stories that teach a moral frequently use the ploy of teaching a virtue by first depicting the associated vice. Kahn is anything but humble, and by depicting the vice of pride, he teaches us the virtue of humility. He is unrelentingly proud and confident in his own abilities. Although the storyline suggests he is a superior human because of eugenic modification, we can all see our own predilection towards pride in this reprobate super man. Kirk goads Kahn into mistakes by playing on his pride. In the end Kahn’s pride is his downfall.
In the “Squire of Gothos” from the original show, the alien creature naming himself “General Trelane .. retired”, turns out to be a temperamental child, chided by his parents by the end of the episode. Trelane is a buffoon, but also a bully. He has technological power so advanced that it appears almost magical to the crew of the starship Enterprise. However, he uses the powers to manipulate and coerce others. Again we see a morality story that shows us vice (selfishness, greed, and corrupt power) in order to teach virtue (selflessness and benevolence).
We can draw a lesson from Trelane when we use our technological gadgets today. Like Trelane, we sometimes wield the power provided by our technology to control and intimidate others for our own pleasure. Like Trelane hovering constantly near the mirror that hides his wondrous machine, we hover close to our technology, worshipping at the high-tech altar, hoping to direct god-like power to our own purposes. We steer tons of metal at high speeds along the highway, easily becoming enraged when another vehicle impedes our progress. Our road rage goads us into becoming road bullies. We drive recklessly in order to intimidate the object of our wrath, using menacing maneuvers to scare them into submission. Power so easily corrupts that we easily forget our own place, becoming prideful so that we use power to control others rather than to show generosity and benevolence.
As the story of “Duet”, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine unfolds, we learn the story of the guilt of a Cardassian. Major Kira Nerys visits the infirmary to greet a Bajoran ill with Kalla-Nohra disease. Instead of a Bajoran liberated from the Cardassian slave labor camp at Gallitep, she finds a Cardassian. It is hate at first sight for Kira. The Cardassian is Marritza, a filing clerk that was present at the camp during the mining accident that caused Kalla-Nohra. Commander Sisko wonders how Kira can be so sure he is culpable—guilty “just for being there”. Kira is insistent because no Cardassian could stand by during horrible atrocities and not bear some responsibility.
The dialog between Kira and Marritza is a duet of call and response, with Marritza prodding Kira into a frenzy. He unmasks her deep abhorrence for all Cardassians: “You see, you’re the one who’s lying now, Major. It’s not the truth you’re interested in; all you want is vengeance.”
Kira reflects how many felt after the real atrocities of war crimes over the last century. The blood of the dead cried out to the living survivors to pursue justice by punishing the perpetrators. Lieutenant Jadzia Dax gently persuades Kira to the realization that she wants Marritza to be guilty so that Bajorans can have satisfaction that at last justice has been served. The implication for Kira is that she might be as bad as those she condemns if she blindly seeks vengeance so far that she would punish an innocent man.
As Kira reconsiders, Marritza pushes harder. New facts uncover his true identity, not as Marritza the filing clerk, but as Gul Darhe’el, the despot who ran the camp and directed the massacre of thousands of Bajorans. Once unmasked, Darhe’el admits no guilt but simply claims duty. To Kira’s objection “nothing justifies genocide” he responds “what you call genocide, I call a day’s work.” Infuriated, Kira is ready to send him to Bajor for a speedy trial and inevitable execution. But as we watch this scene unfold, the viewer is left wondering why Darhe’el would be so eager to claim responsibility for war crimes and so intent on provoking Kira.
The plot twists yet again when Odo and Bashir dig a little deeper and find they have been subtly misled. This is not Darhe’el in their holding cell because Darhe’el is dead and furthermore, Darhe’el could not have contracted Kalla-Nohra because he wasn’t present at the camp on the day of the mining accident. Thus Kira returns to the cell to confront Marritza, who only pretended to be Darhe’el. He bristles at the suggestion: “You mistake me for that bug? That whimpering nothing? Oh you stupid Bajoran girl, don’t you know who I am? I’m your nemesis. I’m your nightmare. I’m the Butcher of Gallitep!” But Marritza cannot maintain the charade. When confronted with the proof that Darhe’el is dead he proclaims “I am alive. I will always be alive! It’s Marritza who’s dead! Marritza, who was good for nothing but cowering under his bunk and weeping like a woman.” And now he himself begins to weep: “Who every night covered his ears because he couldn’t bear to hear the screaming… for mercy… of the Bajorans…”
Finally we see the truth. Marritza seeks atonement for the guilt of all Cardassians. He pursues his own execution out of extreme remorse for doing nothing while Bajorans were tortured. He calls himself a coward, yet we see he has gone to great lengths to stand alone and vulnerable to answer for crimes he did not commit. He has evolved from the self-described coward to become a courageous supplicant in the hands of a Bajoran officer he has manipulated towards hostility. He is the hero who wishes to sacrifice himself as a token satisfaction of Cardassian complicity. Yet he himself was not responsible for war crimes. His guilt was only that he did not raise a voice of objection. He recalls his failures to Major Kira in the end: “You have no idea what it’s like to be a coward. To see these horrors and do nothing.” Could we expect him to do so? He was an excellent filing clerk, and did that filing in some way contribute to the deadly efficiency of the labor camp? He himself feels the guilt by association. He himself wishes to represent the stereotype and expiate that guilt.
Kira also comes to see the truth, developing a more refined sense of justice through the course of the episode. In the beginning, she condemns Marritza simply for being present at Gallitep, the forced labor camp. She slowly moves from a black and white measure of responsibility to recognizing there are degrees of culpability. The story line reminds us of the search for justice and sometimes simply vengeance in the aftermath of liberating prisoners from concentration camps at the end of World War II or after the discovery of mass graves in the killing fields of Cambodia. Was every Nazi and Khmer Rouge soldier equally guilty of mass murder? Not at all. Those that commanded innocents to be killed along with those that directly carried out the orders bear much responsibility for heinous acts. However, those that were present but did not object bear less responsibility. Objection or subversion would likely have resulted in severe punishment for the objector. Objecting might be heroic, but since it wouldn’t likely save any lives, we might also consider it as much foolhardy as praiseworthy. At the episode’s conclusion, Kira no longer stereotypes all Cardassians as equally guilty. Yet we are reminded that hate and bigotry are a disease much more prevalent than Kalla-Nohra. As Marritza is about to leave the space station, a Bajoran—who himself has had run ins with the law— steps up and stabs Marritza to death. Kira exlaims “Why? He wasn’t Dar’heel! Why?”, to which the killer responds “He’s a Cardassian! That’s reason enough!” With Kira we realize that no, one’s race or skin color or gender is not enough to justify ill treatment.
Science Fiction may sometimes seem ambivalent to faith and sometimes seem even anti-religious. However, Christians can find glimpses of the deeper truths and the fundamental reality of the universe around us. Knowing that our world belongs to God and knowing that the observable universe is his creation gives us comfort and calls us to service.
Even in Final Frontier, after unmasking the fake god, Kirk philosophizes that while God might not exist in physical form in space, that does not preclude his existence. Of course Christians realize that God is a spirit, but God the Son also took on physical form and flesh. We thus have in Christ one who is “true God in order to conquer death by his power, and truly human that he might die for us in the weakness of his flesh.” (Belgic Confession, Article 19).