Wednesday, April 14, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
What technology do you use to worship? (If you were thinking by the title of this week’s entry that I was writing a diatribe on technology as a source of idolatry, sorry, that will need to wait for another week.) By “worship” I mean praise and adoration of God. I also have in mind a dialogue – a conversation – between Creator and creature. But I prefer not to get much more specific than that, since “every definition is dangerous” (attributed to Erasmus). Let’s start with formal worship, for example, the worship activities that occur during a church service. There is a plethora of technology that shows up to aid us in worship.
The house of worship itself, if it is a typical church building, is a wonderful combination of architecture, materials selection, and structural engineering. Some buildings are designed so that one immediately recognizes them as a church, while others are more subtle, such as a building converted or leased for use as a church or perhaps a building design so modern and styled without traditional sweeping arches or striking steeples to tip us off. The technology of the building contributes to the worship of the believer’s community that meets there by providing a space for the faithful to gather, keeping them warm (or cool) and dry, perhaps providing some creature comforts such as padded seats. The building architecture might be designed so that form and function aesthetically combine to draw the worshiper’s eyes to certain key features, such as a cross up high and in front. It might use stain glass windows that depict familiar Bible stories. It might arrange seated believers in rows so that their voices combine and soar when singing, or perhaps arrange them in a more circular fashion to face one another as a family gathering around the table for a (communion) meal. The choice of materials in wood, glass, and fabric can be important for visual aesthetics, but also for acoustic reasons. The grand cathedrals of Europe used large spaces enclosed in stone to provide incredible spaces for choral music to resound. In buildings of wood where tile floors were later covered with carpet, the acoustics of the room changed, slightly muffling the voice of the preacher and the songs of the choir.
Technologies of heating, air conditioning, and electric lights allow us to meet for worship in different seasons and during the evening hours as well in daylight times. We hardly notice these modern conveniences, a tribute to their transparency, simply supporting our needs as tools which fade into the background so that we can focus on ends rather than means. Modern humans tend to have shorter memories, depending instead on the technology of the print to aid our recall of words and the Word. Thus the dialog of worship is supported by printed song books and Bibles. These technologies tend to be fairly transparent too, in that we use them to sing or to read scripture without giving the book itself much thought. Even grape juice as a substitute for wine is a technology (the process to prevent fermentation into wine was invented in the mid 1800’s) that we hardly notice when partaking of communion.
Sometimes our technology can get in the way however, especially when it gets too complicated. An example, I think, is the use of Powerpoint in worship services. When done well, I think it provides some good benefits, touching on our visual predilections, allowing us to look up while singing (which enhances vocal support, I’m told), and provides more flexibility than a printed page. But this is also a rather complicated technological means: our system pulls thousands or even billions of zeros and ones stored digitally on the disk of a hard drive, representing a liturgy that is magnetically read inside the computer at the back of the room, converting to a video signal that is routed to a project high above so that it can cast a pattern of shadow and light upon the screen in front, all under the control of someone at the keyboard or using a mouse to click through the screens. A system with many links and no redundancy is more prone to failure. When the screen is not advanced to the next verse of a song at the right moment as the music proceeds, we all stumble – sometimes even when I actually know the song by heart, I cannot quickly enough come up with the words because of the distraction of wondering what is going wrong because the screen seems to have frozen forever while the song marches on. A similar disruption can detract from our worship when the microphone for the worship leader does not work. This seems to be even more common for wireless versions (which need fresh batteries, need a proper radio signal, require the user to remember to switch it on, require the sound board person to route the signal to the speakers properly, and more). We have often designed our worship spaces so that they are dependent on sound amplification in order for all to hear. When it fails, our worship falters. Technology does not need to be complicated to distract. Even a clock on the wall can prevent us from fully engaging in the worship conversation.
My solution to these problems is not to throw out the technology, at least not necessarily. First, it seems to me that we should carefully consider each proposed technological addition to be sure it truly will aid us in worship, that it will effectively enhance our worship. If so, then we must also consider the possible failure modes and how we will handle it. If we have a substitute microphone handy that can be quickly swapped if batteries die, then the technology stays mainly in the background with only a momentary blip to correct for a failure. If the song leader is flexible, they can quickly adapt to a Powerpoint failure and transition to a familiar chorus that the congregation knows by heart. As we plan our worship, let us consider how each activity, each action, and how each technology can lead to a deeper conversation, a more engaging dialog, higher praise, and more spirit-filled worship of our God.
Wednesday, April 07, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
In his 2010 report to the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the American Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, took the surprising step of elevating cyber attacks to the number one position in his annual assessment of threats to US national security threats, putting it even above terrorism. In the opening lines of his report , he characterizes our vulnerability to cyber-attacks: “The national security of the United States, our economic prosperity, and the daily functioning of our government are dependent on a dynamic public and private information infrastructure, which includes telecommunications, computer networks and systems, and the information residing within. This critical infrastructure is severely threatened.”
Most of us use the Internet heavily for a variety of purposes: information gathering, connecting with friends, sharing data with a colleague, shopping, managing our finances, and so forth. For much of that activity, we are depending on reliable, secure communication. It is critical that our personal data, such as a credit card number, remains confidential, so that a malicious person somewhere on the line cannot swipe it. It is critical that someone else cannot impersonate us, stealing our identity on-line. Encryption technology provides us with that security. But it is not fool-proof. We can learn a lesson from the story of the Enigma code that the German military used in World War II. The Nazi soldiers regularly communicated important war plans with each other using this code, which they thought was keeping the communication secret. But the code had actually been broken, so that the Allies could decipher the messages, allowing them to eavesdrop on the enemy. We must guard against overconfidence in our security today as well. Our messages may have been compromised without our knowing.
The perceived security of Internet communication can also give a sense of anonymity (though this is often a false sense as well). Anonymity can provide some benefits, but it can also tempt us in a number of ways. We can use anonymity to avoid annoying return sales emails when visiting a shopping website or to blow the whistle on an illegal or unethical practice without suffering repercussions. However, we can also use anonymity to make false accusations without accountability, or to obtain music or software without paying for it even if the artist expects it, or to view pornography without anyone finding out. Anonymity bypasses accountability. It lets us indulge our sinful natures without getting caught. Of course we are all ultimately accountable to our Creator, but what about more immediate accountability? Usually our closest friends and associates can help keep us accountable because they have the most access to our personal lives. Our intimate friendships should help us lead a life of integrity. But if we use the power of private communication that the Internet and encryption provide, we hide that aspect of our lives from our friends and loved ones, bypassing the natural lines of accountability we would otherwise have to keep us on the straight and narrow. Just like showing ones checkbook to a friend to demonstrate real financial stewardship, or showing one’s calendar to a colleague for a double-check of one’s priorities, providing some transparency in Internet use might be a good thing. Transparency could be keeping one’s computer screen at work clearly visible to co-workers. It could be a teenager friending a parent on facebook so that Mom or Dad can check up (without ever leaving a comment that could embarrass them with their “real” friends, of course).
This same sort of credit and debit accounting of benefits and hazards applies not only at the personal level, but also for society more broadly too. Corporations, banks, even nations depend on secure electronic communications in support of good and even noble goals. But that same secrecy can cover criminal activity or harbor terrorist messages. Technology used to make war is often a back and forth of development to give one side an edge over the other. Technological developments often determine the victor, changing the course of history in the process. The casualties of war have mounted higher and higher as we have found more effective ways to kill one another. Isn’t it unfortunate that humanity has made leaps in technology often through military means? I am not advocating pacifism here – I do believe governments are armed with the sword, but such a powerful tool must be used carefully, in the cause of justice. Perhaps we can also see God’s grace in the peaceful uses we have later found for certain military technologies. Perhaps that in some small way is how we can beat at least some of our swords into plowshares.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
Are we obsessed with time? We certainly have a lot of technology to measure time (and supposedly manage our own time schedules). From earliest times, humankind has marked days and seasons. The mysterious stones erected at Stonehenge are thought to align for astronomical observations. Sundials have been used since ancient times to mark hours or even minutes of the day. Hourglasses, water-driven clocks, then mechanical clocks, wristwatches, and lately electronic varieties of all shaped and sizes have sprung up to help us measure time. Monks used some of the first mechanical clocks to keep careful track of prayer times in their monasteries.
Our timekeepers are not perfect, drifting slower or faster than “real time”. We have developed elaborate means to synchronize and adjust our timekeepers. The village bell tower chimed out each half hour, notifying citizens of the passage of time. Eight naval bells marked the end of a shipboard watch (which itself was measured using a sand hourglass). To be sure we are in sync with our neighbors across the seas, we divide the planet into time zones. Some of us remember the “at the tone the time will be…” phone message. Modern cell phones and computers use electronic means to synchronize to official US time standard, the atomic clock located in Boulder, Colorado at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. However, even electrons whizzing down the Internet take finite time to make the journey, and thus our digital devices use appropriate algorithms to estimate the time of the journey and adjust their time estimates accordingly. Interestingly, even our GPS navigators must know the time. Estimating location from the positioning of the GPS satellites requires precise knowledge of timing, so each satellite carries an atomic clock. In this case, our algorithms must even correct for the relativistic effects of gravity and velocity in order to obtain the required precision. The earth’s tilt and elliptical orbit causes us to adjust our days with daylight savings time. The earth spins around its own axis as it also spins around its distance dance partner, the sun, but not precisely aligned, so that we must every four years make an adjustment to make up for that extra quarter spin each revolution. But even that is not precise, so that our modern Gregorian calendar made up for the deficiencies in the Julian calendar, so that we skip leap year every 100 years (and then take an exception to our exception every 400 years). We have even taken to throwing in a leap second every few years.
Although there is some variation in how we humans perceive distance and velocity in the three physical dimensions of space, there is much greater variety in how we perceive our passage through the fourth dimension of time. Not only from person to person, but even for an individual, time can fly or slow to a crawl, depending on our circumstances. We thus need technology to aid us in partitioning time. We use calendars to divide years into months and days. The microwave digital timer counts down the seconds to heat my food. A bedside alarm clock marks the minutes until it buzzes me awake. A reminder alarm on my smartphone signals an imminent meeting.
Science fiction stories abound on the topic of time, from slowing time, to reversing it, to traveling back and forth through it. Our society is fascinated by the possibility. I wonder why we are so obsessed with time? I think it is related to our fascination with technology. There is a noble part to this interest – we are called in the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 to develop the creation, which I believe includes creative technological development. But there is a dark side to our fixation too. Technology gives us the ability to control the environment around us. The amplifying power of our tools makes us believe that we can be masters of our own fate. But we must be wary of this mistake. The builders of the tower of Babel were perhaps guilty of this arrogance and pride. The heavens were an unreachable place that they hoped to reach, proving their own power. Perhaps time fascinates us because we cannot control it. We are helpless to stop it and cannot alter its flow. But Einstein has now tempted us – perhaps time is not as impregnable as we thought. Perhaps we can affect it. Thus, we dream of time travel. Is this desire to control time a sin? No more or less than any desire to control might be. Time is a creature created by God, like rocks, trees, gravity, Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven’s 5th symphony, complex numbers, etc. As stewards of that creation, we are called to some responsibility to care for it and make it flourish. I’m not sure what that means for the rather enigmatic creature called time. Let’s step carefully as we explore what time is and means.
This blog is running a little long already, so let me conclude with two thoughts. First, if time is part of the creation, then God stands above and outside of time. God providentially upholds his creation and I think that includes upholding the physical laws of the universe, even the flow of time. When God the Son stepped into the creation, that mysterious person who is fully divine and fully human, he also submitted himself to be constrained by time (at least his human aspect). That leads me to my second thought, that God has an awesome plan for us, a timeline if you will. It started with Creation and the gift of free will. Our first parents made a fateful choice that led to the second act in this drama, the Fall. The third act of Redemption was the ultimate deus ex machina, where God stepped on to the stage and the story changed. The hourglass of time continues to flow while we approach the final act of the last days and we look forward to the Restoration of all things. We are the keepers of that story, the history and future of creation.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
I have pointed out the dangers of technology in a couple blogs now. I stand in good company with others that have sounded the warning bell regarding our devices. Carl Mitcham, a philosopher of technology, interprets Jacques Ellul, another philosopher of technology, noting that for Ellul, “the challenge of the technical phenomenon is precisely that it resists incorporation into or subordination to non-technical attitudes and ways of thinking. It explains other actions as forms of itself and thereby transforms them into itself.” (Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy, p. 59) Ellul believed that technology had inherent tendencies to become universal and autonomous. He had a dark view of technology, thinking that there was almost a deterministic drive for technology to subsume most of society and culture into itself. Technology is certainly prevalent in our culture; it can certainly cause problems. I share a fear that we can easily become enthralled by our own devices, that we can easily corrupt our technology, that we can destroy ourselves with our tools, nevertheless let me extol the virtues of technology for a moment
I have a brighter view of the tools we design, a vision rooted in the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28: God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” The Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity takes a high view of God’s charge to “fill the earth”. More than simply having lots of children (a duty we have discharged quite enough it seems), we are called to fill the earth with culture. We are God’s stewards of creation, a gift that we are not to bury but rather to invest and grow. God’s mandate asks us to create and build and design. It asks us to develop music, society, institutions, law, philosophy, stories, sculptures, maps, government, intricate mathematics, poems, mesmerizing films, finely crafted wood cabinets, and beautiful landscaping. Technology is part of this milieu of creative expression that fulfills the cultural mandate.
All of this cultural activity is an unfolding of the creation. God’s gift of creation comes wrapped! It comes in layers, with certain aspects hidden until we unwrap the gift. It is a boundless gift – we can plumb its depths again and again, finding more each time. Scientists are never done with their job of exploring God’s creation and discovering what makes it tick. We are called not only to discover, but to till a garden in this fertile soil. Engineers are never done with their job of developing creation in service to humans, in care of the creation, in praise of our Creator. Technology is a wonderful expression of the useful qualities of the materials God has provided.
How have you unwrapped creation lately? What culture have you developed today? Have you created a table (out of wood or out of words)? Written some program code? Machined a part? Sketched a diagram? Created a brief but elegant email message? Developed a business case for a new product? Designed an architecture for that new building or new computer?
Wednesday, March 17, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
The Large Hadron Collider is slowly moving toward full operation to detect exotic subatomic particles that physicists predict, but have not yet observed. But the scientists are not the only ones waiting with bated breath. The collider has made its way into the popular psyche as a symbol of all large and complex technological projects that might have unforeseen consequences. Rather than confirmation of the latest interesting physics concepts, some predict doomsday scenarios of black holes or time warps that wipe out the entire planet.
While these far-fetched fears are unfounded, history is replete with examples of technological “wonders” that the inventor claimed was absolutely safe, only to be proved absolutely wrong in the face of a deadly catastrophic failure. The Titanic, a ship that engineers declared “virtually unsinkable”, sank. The Challenger was lost in a fiery explosion during lift-off and the Columbia destroyed on re-entry. Both space shuttles doomed by seemingly small defects: temperature-sensitive O-rings for the one and a few missing heat shield tiles (out of tens of thousands) for the other. The skywalk at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City fell. The twin towers fell. The St. Francis Dam failed. Another plane goes down (we still don’t know what caused the loss of the Airbus A330 from Brazil to go down in the Atlantic). Three Mile Island nearly melts down and Chernobyl burns. Some disasters have snuck up on us. We didn’t realize the dangers of PCBs. We didn’t notice the deterioration of the ozone layer, nor the global warming related to increased carbon dioxide production. We didn’t detect the serious side-effects of asbestos until we had surrounded ourselves with it in our building materials.
What should we conclude as people of faith? Should we abstain from all technology in despair? I don’t think so. Technology is a means to provide shelter and comfort to the homeless. It is a tool to save lives and make them flourish. It is an instrument to unleash creativity and foster collaboration. It is one of God’s good gifts that he gives to the stewards of his creation. But technology is a power tool that we must use with great care. A doctor must take care to administer the right medicine in the right amounts else risk killing the patient with the cure that was intended to save. Likewise we must be wise and discerning in our diagnosis of society’s ills and equally savvy in applying the right technological cure, monitoring our patient for any unforeseen consequences throughout the regimen. Our faith should give us pause in two ways while we use the power of technology. First, we are finite creatures. We are limited in our ability to understand all the possible outcomes of an action. We can make mistakes. So while we are responsible for our own behavior, we must also acknowledge the limits of our capacity to predict the impact of our technology, taking proper precautions to monitor its effects. Second, we are fallen creatures. Sin clouds our vision and taints our motives. While innocent mistakes are still our responsibility, intentional use of technology to satisfy greed or lust or other vices is particularly reprehensible. None of us is without sin and I must be on careful watch to examine my own motivations – especially when I wield the power of technology, amplifying the impact of my choices.
Have you experienced any unintended consequences from technology in your own life? Has that supposed time-saver actually ended up taking over your life? Did that safety latch end up pinching your finger? What are your examples?