Wednesday, April 07, 2010

By 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, 2010

By 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.




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? 


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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest