High Impact

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Which technologies have had the greatest positive impact on human society?  It is difficult to answer that question because we tend to be rather provincial both in space and time, focusing on local and recent inventions.  In order to evaluate the question properly, we need a little perspectival distance.  For example, in 1997, in a Yankelovich Partners study of technologies that made life easier for Americans, the top three technologies were the microwave oven, the telephone answering machine, and the automatic teller machine (ATM).  Slightly more than a decade later, Americans still use microwaves heavily, but the telephone answering machine is becoming rare as more and more people use cell phones with voice mail.  (Though I suppose you could still count voice mail as an answering machine, at least in terms of function, if not implementation.)  The ATM also gets far less use as we have moved further into an electronic cash society, using credit and debit cards to swipe our charges either physically or virtually.  In 2005, PC World developed their own list of the “50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years” .  The top five included the Sony Walkman (1979), the Apple iPod (2001), personal video recorders such as ReplayTV and Tivo (1999), the PalmPilot (1996), and the Sony CD player (1982).  Many of the gadgets on their list have also faded into history.  In 2003, the National Academy of Engineering produced a list of the ten greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, starting with electrification (the power grid), the automobile, the airplane, and clean water supply. 

It is interesting that our lists often emphasize convenience and entertainment.  Should we still count these as positive impacts?  What constitutes improvement or progress?  How do we measure our success?  Do our inventions provide a better quality of life?  Do our new technological products extend life or improve health?  Do they help us to flourish? 

While many technologies are transient, eventually giving way to newer products, most of the important technologies throughout history have also been building blocks for more development, so part of their impact was the inspiration for follow-on products and inventions. The development of written language has a long history connected with technology, starting when the ancient Sumerians first created visual symbols in clay to represent a concept (perhaps verbally expressed up until then).  Technologies for writing out our word symbols have progressed from stone to papyrus to paper.  Inks have been developed along with writing instruments from quills to pens.  Gutenberg’s printing press (around 1440) was a sea change that sparked intellectual and religious revolutions and reformations, coming 45 centuries after Cuneiform first appeared in Sumer.  Less than 6 centuries later, the digital revolution appears poised to make another revolution in the written word, with more and more people reading on-line instead of on printed paper.

As we continue to unfold God’s good creation, following the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28, we can anticipate that our technological developments will continue to build on earlier products and ideas.  Technology is a social activity in the sense that there is a community of developers across the globe and throughout history that collaborate by observing each other’s ideas, modifying and tinkering here and there to come up with a new twist.  Inventors do not produce a new technology from thin air, but from Gutenberg to the Wright brothers, they gather existing threads of ideas into a new strand, standing on the shoulders of their predecessors.  This sense of community can be an important bridle on pride so that we can celebrate technological developments appropriately, appreciating the genius of the inventor, but also recognizing the foundation on which they build.  I thank God for giving us the materials to build wondrous and amazing things, and for giving us inventors and engineers like Thomas Edison, Charles Babbage, Guglielmo Marconi, Margaret Knight, Steve Wozniak, and many, many others.

Designing Road Rage

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Recently two drivers entering a local freeway became so upset with each other that they caused a major accident, though fortunately no lives were lost.  It started with one vehicle entered the highway without noticing the other, nearly forcing him off the road to avoid a collision.  Both drivers then began a deadly dance of revenge, driving erratically, slamming brakes, cutting each other off, and tailgating.  Their road rage resulted in one of the vehicles hurtling across the median into on-coming traffic, causing a multi-car accident and serious injuries. 

The apostle Paul calls the church in Ephesus to put aside anger, and through that letter we are all exhorted to avoid rage.

Ephesians 4:29-32, New International Version

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

In her paper on technology breakdowns and catastrophes, Calvin Professor of Engineering Gayle Ermer notes the human factor in automobile accidents:  “Reckless drivers and road rage also contribute to a small number of accidents. Addressing these failure contributions is not as much about redesigning the technological system as it is about encouraging people to choose to do the right thing when driving and to develop Christian virtues, which would make people better drivers.”  [Gayle E. Ermer , “Understanding Technological Failure: Finitude, Fallen-ness, and Sinfulness in Engineering Disasters”, Proceedings of the 2006 Christian Engineering Education Conference, pp. 129-142]  Ermer stresses the individual responsibility of the technology user to treat tools with appropriate care.  A power tool must be handled with respect, whether it be a table saw or a two-ton vehicle speeding down the expressway.  In the blink of an eye, a careless woodworker can lose a finger; a careless driver can lose their life.  We are accountable for our actions and cannot simply blame the tool for injury or damage.  I am rarely convinced by the modern version of the “devil made me do it” when people point the finger of blame away from themselves and towards the technology, or the system, or their genes, or their meds. 

On the other hand, without relieving the technology user of accountability for their actions, I believe there is some additional responsibility that can be laid at the feet of the technology provider.  The designer, distributer, and maintainer of technology should consider whether they contribute to ill-effects from the use of their product.  Lambert Van Poolen, a retired Professor of Engineering at Calvin, first got me thinking about how the design of the automobile might be a factor in road rage.  He noted that our cars, especially in the United States, are little homes on wheels:  comfortable seats with music, beverage holders, climate control, and other conveniences all at our fingertips.  We are cocooned into our vehicle and isolated from the other humans on the road.  We use air conditioning and roll up our windows, making it more difficult to hear our fellow travelers on the road.  We use window tinting so that they cannot easily see us.  Our designs give us a sense of anonymity on the road.  When we start viewing the other drivers on the road more as obstacles than as fellow humans, we make it easier to slip into bad behavior towards them.  When we believe we travel unrecognized, we are more tempted to do things we wouldn’t dream of doing when in the company of acquaintances. 

Is it possible to design the technology any differently?  Perhaps we are doomed to live with this inherent danger.  In order for a hammer to perform its intended function of pounding nails, it must also be a tool that could kill someone with a blow to the head.  We cannot eliminate the danger without eliminating the beneficial function as well.  True in this simple case, but for many technologies, there are alternate approaches that reduce or eliminate the drawbacks without compromising the beneficial function.  For example, the common table saw can be redesigned to significantly reduce the chance that one loses a finger.  I wonder if we could design our cars and roadway systems to significantly reduce the chances of road rage? 

Transparent Technology

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

In my engineering design courses, I teach students to use a set of norms that help guide decisions about technology development.  These design norms include justice, cultural appropriateness, caring, humility, and more.  The one I want to focus on here is transparency.  The word “transparent” has two related meanings and I intend the use of both in guiding our design of technology.  First, transparent can mean “see through” or clear, i.e., we can see into the box and view the inner workings.  It is the idea that technology should work in ways that are obvious to the user.  This may be literal transparency so that we can observe the innards of the device, but it might also mean figurative transparency, in that we understand how the device works sufficiently to diagnose problems and anticipate behavior.  There should be no surprises.  When the device fails, it should fail gracefully, in ways that the user anticipates.  Modern printers are usually transparent in their maintenance, warning the user when ink or toner is becoming low and notifying the user when a paper jam has caused a failure.  Automobile brakes provide a maintenance feature by including a “squeal” liner that screeches a clear message to the driver when the brake lining needs to be replaced. 

Second, transparency can be taken further to mean complete invisibility.  Transparent technology allows the device to fade into the background, doing its job as a tool, allowing the user to focus on more important ends because the means are working well.  A number of technological devices we use today illustrate this aspect of the transparency norm.  We rarely notice the thermostat in our homes and offices, quietly regulating the temperature so that we are always comfortable.  Occasionally we adjust the settings, but most of the time it works away without any supervision.  Another example is fluoridated water.  The first large-scale test of fluoridation was done in my home city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, starting just after World War II.  Since then the use of this technology has spread throughout much of the world.  The typical user does not notice the fluoride in the water she drinks, yet she benefits from reduced tooth decay.

Transparency does not necessarily mean simplicity (though that is helpful and even desirable).  For example, the thermostat must be designed with some hysteresis so that the furnace runs, for example, 10 minutes out of every hour rather than 10 seconds out of every minute (which would much more quickly wear out the motor and probably not properly warm the home).  The thermostat is the sensor and controller of a more complex system of a furnace and air handling ducts (or perhaps a boiler and hot water pipes).  The furnace or boiler is powered by some fuel source (perhaps electricity, natural gas, or heating oil).  The fuel source, in turn, depends on a vast distribution network of its own.

Electricity on demand is a similar mix of simplicity and complexity.  Flipping the light switch to illuminate a room is second nature to us, yet the ease of that action belies the complexity of the power grid that distributes electricity to us.  The convenience of that system makes us perhaps too complacent and too quick to use more power than we need.  In this case, the utility of electricity supply is transparent in the sense that it is almost invisibly in the background and unnoticed.  But it is not very transparent in displaying its inner workings.  While most homeowners understand the mechanism of current limiting provided by a circuit breaker or fuse, some do not properly perceive the purpose of these limits, unknowingly putting themselves at risk when they bypass a fuse or use a two-prong adapter and thus lose the protection of the grounding wire.  We also fail to comprehend the vast energy network that feeds our habits, a network that interacts in complex ways with our environment.

Interestingly, the convenience of a highly transparent technology design often leads to complacency.  Electricity is one example; credit cards are another.  The ease of financial transactions makes it difficult to resist the temptation to spend beyond one’s means (because the card gives the false impression of limitless means).  Here transparency succeeds in one sense – the technology works so well that we really don’t notice the complex financial and technical mechanisms that support that easy swipe to pay.  But in another sense, the credit card is purposely obscure, in that we don’t easily see the overall affect on our personal finance until we are deep in debt.  It encourages short-term pleasure in exchange for long-term pain, playing on our propensity for instant gratification.  These examples demonstrate that design norms by themselves can be twisted and abused.  Even when done well, they can lead to unanticipated problems.  Thus a complete set of norms is necessary. Just as engineers must make trade-offs between technical goals, so we must also balance normative goals. For example, norms of justice and stewardship can temper transparency when it leads to inequitable or wasteful behavior.  In conclusion, I advocate for transparency in our technology – but only when balanced with other technical and ethical goals.

Technology Worship

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

I like word plays, so this week I swapped the order of my blog title from last week.  So if you were hoping for that diatribe, here we go!  Compared to last week when I considered technology in aid worship, can technology become the subject of worship?  I assert that it can and does serve as an idol in our society.  Further, I admit that I have suffered gadget envy and been tempted to put tech devices too high on my list of priorities (as measured by “dollars spent” according to my checkbook and “hours spent” according to my daily planner). 

Idols are replacement gods that we substitute for the real, living God.  When I picture an “idol”, I think of some Old Testament pagan bowing down in front of a carved wooden figurine, mumbling some adoration.  I certainly don’t bow down to my iPhone or laptop or GPS navigator.  So they are not idols, right?  While I appreciate that my Tivo plays back recorded television, I don’t leap to think it is also the Creator of the universe.  So it is not an idol, right?  By the way, actually it is not a Tivo, but a Linux-based MythTV because I wanted to tinker around with it, and it was free because I had the PC sitting around anyway.  Well, actually it wasn’t free because I had to buy a TV tuner card for it and then spend hours and hours tinkering.  In fact, now that I think about it, actually, I don’t even record TV anymore because we watch Netflix and Hulu instead.  Hmm … sounds like I spend quite a bit of time and money to conveniently watch what I must admit is often not very high quality programming.  The content, that is.  The video image quality is, of course, excellent.  Even if I don’t bow down, even if I don’t adulate,  perhaps I still idolize?  Am I hypocritically giving lip-service to the one true God by praising him while spending more of my money and attention on technology?

We worship our tech idols by giving them an honored place in our homes, such as the large HDTV flat screen that is the central and most prominent item in our living rooms.  We carry our tech with us everywhere we go, such as our cellphones, cameras, or GPS navigators.  We pay careful attention to their care and feeding when we recharge, maintain, and upgrade (it seems our gods are rather needy).  The incense of 802.11n WiFi wafts through our rooms and hallways.  We have special houses of tech worship, such as the Best Buy down the street or the electronics section on Amazon.  We pay our our service plan indulgences for remission of sins.  When we suffer physical ill, we submit ourselves to intimate observation by a high priest of Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

I don’t think all of the ancient Israelites who turned to their neighbor’s gods necessarily thought those wooden statues were the Creator of the universe either.  I think they sometimes found it convenient to fit in with the crowd.  I think they sometimes thought of Jehovah as rather distant: “Sure, he’s the Creator and Sustainer, but what has he done for me lately?  I can’t see him.  I don’t hear him.”  When God doesn’t respond to our beck and call, when more tangible objects offer a little solace or comfort, perhaps we are rather more like the OT Israelites that we care to admit.  God is still on his throne, but when we don’t act like it, we put idols ahead of God.  We know God is the High King of heaven and earth with our head, but we don’t show it by our actions, so it must not be true in our hearts. 

Technology can also become a status symbol and in this respect we again repeat the mistakes of the old Israelites.  Some of them had idols made not of wood, but of silver or gold.  Their household gods were clear signals to their neighbors that they had arrived.  Whether they actually believed in them was secondary to the visible mark of wealth they conferred.  If I am drawn to the latest gadget because I want to show it off, then I have committed the same sin of idolatry mixed with pride.  I am purchasing the product because of its utility as a status symbol to show off.  I won’t admit that – I’ll offer some feeble excuses about my need for it – but my pleasure in the device derives from the envy others express, not from any noble use I make of it.  It has become my idol. 

My prayer today will be that I will not become too enamored with these lifeless objects that do not breathe, that I will not succumb to the allure of these man-made trinkets.  Rather, that I will appreciate them as part of God’s good creation and keep them in their proper place.

Worship Technology

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

By 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.



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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest