Technological Mandate

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

By 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? 

Unintended Consequences

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

By 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? 

To Your Health

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”  - Luke 10:36-37

The second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor.  The Story of the good Samaritan was in response to the expert in the law asking “Who is my neighbor?”  God calls us to have a special concern for the poor and downtrodden.  Jesus did not give the expert a litmus test for checking whether someone was his neighbor, but instead turned it around and defined the expert himself as a neighbor on the condition that he showed mercy.  The traditional definition of neighbor using physical proximity does not hold up here.  Instead, we find neighbors wherever we find opportunity to show mercy.  In a globally connected society, we certainly do not lack for those opportunities. 

The health care debates are raging once again.  Who should pay?  Who should benefit?  In her article on “Scarce Resources and Christian Compassion,” Ruth Bernd Groenhout notes that “when the treatment was less effective, people with kidney disease generated fairly few expenses. Now that far better treatments are available, the expenses associated with renal disease have skyrocketed. And this is true of almost every area of health care. The better we get at offering high-technology treatments for health problems, the more people will use them, and the less we can all afford health insurance.” 

This is the rub for our high-tech toys.  They are also highly expensive.  Thus we are faced with trade-offs.  Preventative care is much less expensive than reactive care.  But it does not have the dramatic impact of saving a life that hangs in the balance – it is not like a new wonder drug that fights cancer or emergency surgery that spares a life after an accident.  The best bang for the buck when measured by the additional number of years of life added to society in sum will be from basic health measures aimed at the young (who have more years to gain if problems are detected early).  But the neighbor who desperately needs surgery, who will die without it, is the more obvious case deserving mercy. 

Now it’s your turn.  How should we properly balance love, justice, and mercy when there are not enough resources?  We can always do more, so when have we done enough?  How do we perform a society-wide triage?  It is as if the good Samaritan came across not one victim, but 30 million victims lying by the side of the road.  Is it enough to help the first and leave the rest? 


The End of the Age of Oil

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Ancient history has been demarcated by the tools humans developed and used during each era, from the stone age to the bronze age to the iron age.  I imagine that there was an age of wood before that of stone, and an age of steel after that of iron, though we don’t typically call then that.  Technology has always been a major societal force, a tidal wave that sweeps in new cultural arrangements and hierarchies, washing away the previous establishment in the process.  These changes have come not only due to military technologies that gave one army an edge over the other, but also due to less pugilistic products, such as the clock or the printing press. 

Rampant disease combined with the disintegration of a large, central government led us into the dark ages, a moniker that described not our technology, but our state of affairs more broadly.  Historians labeled the following epochs as renaissance and enlightenment in recognition of the new hope produced by rational thought, organized communities, and scientific discovery. In modern times we have used labels of industrial and information to name our ages.  Thus we have returned to identifying ourselves by our tools.  We are homo faber, people who make and fabricate, defining our humanity by how we extend ourselves through the tools we create and utilize. 

But there is another weave that threads its way through our recent history that may be equally important:  the ages of energy.  These eras are intimately related to our tools, in many ways dictating the alternatives we choose in designing our world.  These are the eras of energy.  From primeval days, humans used wood as a fuel for fire, the heat of which could produce gentle warmth or searing energy to forge a steel blade.  We also tapped water and wind to drive mills, putting mechanical motion to work for us.  As populations grew, we depleted large forests in our thirst for more energy.  The age of wood as a source of energy gave way to the age of coal, the first in a line of fossil fuels that were attractive for the amount of energy per unit of material they could produce.  Oil and natural gas took prominence in the last century or so because they were easily distributed and highly effective as energy sources. 

We are coming to the end of the age of oil.  The US rolled up and over Hubbert’s peak decades ago, and now we are likely over the global peak as well.  In a sort of mass nostalgia, society is returning to wind and water, renewing them with the new name of “renewable” sources.  At the same time, we forge ahead with exotic sources of energy such as nuclear fission and perhaps someday nuclear fusion as well.  The end of oil may be fortuitous, as there is strong evidence that use of fossil fuels is the prime contributor to artificial change to the global climate. 

As the centers of physical power shift, so do the centers of political power.  Nations that held wood, wind, water, or coal resources in centuries past often held great political power as well.  In recent times, Americans have bemoaned the undue influence held by middle-eastern nations with large oil deposits (calling them “reserves” is probably no longer accurate, since they are running out). 
Let me use this brief historical sketch to make two points regarding Christian faith.  First, we can praise our Creator for seeding the earth with such diverse and rich sources of energy.  These resources have driven creative innovation and human well-being when used appropriately.  The Lord has provided us with a bountiful earth that holds treasures within for us to discover and humbly develop.

Second, as God’s stewards of creation and as his agents of renewal in this world, I believe we are called to keep a careful watch for injustice, especially as we shift from one source of energy to another.  Such shifts can result in economic, cultural, and political upheaval.  For example, while economics in the long run can be a great leveler to ensure we are using resources in a stewardly fashion, in the short term, it can displace workers and families and whole communities.  As oil prices rise over time, the oil-powered transportation technologies we depend on individually and communally will become obsolete.  Christians are called to care for those that lose jobs in the wake of these major changes.  Employment is important because it provides the means to food and shelter for a family.  It is also a warranted source of pride and respect for humans that are made in God’s image.  We are made to work.  When work is not available, humans suffer.  I believe we are called to care for that suffering neighbor.  We are called not only to help individuals in need, but also to plan together so that we can make the shift more smoothly from one era to another.  Rather than waiting until the last moment when oil becomes scarce (and thus exorbitantly expensive), we should be devoting effort to development of replacement sources.  Anticipating the change will allow us to better handle the transition.  That might mean a little pain now in order to avoid a larger hurt in the future.  For example, rather than propping up easy use of oil, perhaps it is time Americans accept some small increases in gasoline tax, which could fund more intensive research into replacements for oil and at the same time encourage conservation.

Olympic Technology

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

I had the chance to catch the freestyle ski competition at the winter Olympics in Vancouver the other night.  The athletic prowess and simple beauty of skiers hurtling their bodies end over end in graceful spins and turns was incredible to behold.  Jump after jump, my family exclaimed “oohs” and “ahs” of astonishment.  It got me thinking about the technology of world-class sporting competitions.  The athlete hones their skills, endurance,  mental focus,  agility – tuning every muscle to precisely perform the necessary responses.  They study and practice techniques to give them an edge over the competition.  Their equipment is also critical to their success.  The skies, the poles, even their clothing is carefully designed and fabricated to contribute to the athlete’s success.  These are tools of the trade.  Like all technology, their purpose is utility, a means to an end.  Some of the best technology, in sports or elsewhere, goes almost unnoticed, staying out of the way and doing its job. 

One design norm that we might use as a guide in developing technological products is transparency.  I mean this in two senses.  The first is the idea I mentioned above, that the technology is practically invisible.  As a tool, it is meant as an aid in reaching some goal.  It is an extension of ourselves (as skis extend the foot, poles extend the arm, and ski goggles extend the function of the eyelids).  Technology that amplifies our abilities is at the same time transparent when it stays out of the way except when needed, when it keeps the focus on accomplishing the task.  The second aspect of transparency is that we can see into the technology (at least figuratively, if not literally).  It does not hide operational details.  It is intuitive, understandable, and predictable.  We should not be surprised by the tool and if it fails, it should be easy to see what went wrong (and even better, we should have some warning that a failure is imminent).  For example, some automobile brake pads are designed to emit a squeal when the lining is wearing thin, warning the driver that the pads need replacement soon.  A counter-example might be the obscure messages one sometimes gets when a computer crashes, providing no warning and little understanding.  In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World we have a dark picture of sports technology that encourages outrageous consumerism, where the technology of obstacle and electromagnetic golf makes the game complex and the tools vividly obvious.  In this light, the norm of transparency also encourages simplicity. 

Why should Christians care about transparency in technology?  Because transparency itself is a mean to ends that we value.  Transparency is a means to love and care for our neighbor who uses the product.  It is a form of honesty and truth by revealing inner workings.  It is a confirmation of trust and respect between the provider and the consumer.  Most would agree to the ethical principle that the ends do not justify the means.  But the positive side of this principle is then that we must justify both our ends and our means.  As we explore and design and deploy and use our technological tools, transparency is one way we can gauge whether those means are worthy and right.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest