Sherlock, or Why Engineers Need to be Involved in the Christian Commentary on Technology

SherlockA while back, my wife and I were trolling the streaming options on Netflix, when we came across what looked to be an interesting setting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. This recent BBC series is simply titled “Sherlock,” and unlike the other versions we’ve seen, which had been set in Doyle’s original context of late 19th and early 20th century England, these episodes are set in the present day. Sherlock still solves perplexing crimes with his amazing powers of deduction, but now he uses a mobile phone instead of his usual network of street-savvy children. Watson still serves as his assistant, but he now reports their adventures via a blog instead of the newspaper.

The series is really fantastic, but what I find most fascinating about it is the way in which the writers had to sift and separate which elements of the original characters and stories were truly essential, and which were merely accidental, contextual, and contingent. In other words, they had to extract and maintain what made Sherlock truly Sherlock; the rest they could then update and play with to better fit our current context. Writers are, of course, the best equipped to do this kind of thing with stories, as they have the skills and sensitivities necessary to analyze the various components and ascertain which elements must remain, and which could be different.

In a similar way, engineers are the best equipped to do this same kind of work with technology. Engineers are trained to look inside the “black box” of a given device or system and separate which features are absolutely necessary to its function, and which are the products of relatively arbitrary decisions made by the original designers. In other words, engineers are uniquely equipped to look deep inside a given technology and highlight the aspects that could be changed without sacrificing the device’s core function.

This, I think, is one of the reasons why engineers need to get involved in the Christian commentary on technology. Too often, technological critics treat the targets of their ire as black boxes, failing to separate the things that are essential to the way something works from those things that could easily be modified and reshaped. In this kind of analysis, one is often left with the impression that the entire device must be resisted if any of its present behaviors are found to be undesirable. But if those undesirable behaviors are not really essential to the way the device functions, a new possibility emerges: we can domesticate the device by altering those accidental behaviors so that they better fit with our existing social values.

Let me try to make this more concrete with an example. In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that hypertext is inherently more difficult to read than traditional linear text because each hyperlink requires the extra cognitive task of deciding whether to follow the link or not (126-129). He supports this argument by citing a number of studies where researchers asked one group of students to read a story in a traditional printed form, and another group to read the same story decorated with hyperlinks that when clicked, took them to different parts of the narrative. Those who read the hyperlinked version tended to score lower on comprehension tests administered after reading, and several subjects complained that the story was hard to follow. Conclusion: hypertext is inherently distracting and harder to read.

I have a lot of sympathy for this conclusion, as I too have experienced my fair share of badly-designed hypertext that I found frustrating to read. But notice the way that Carr is treating “hypertext” as a black box. There is no discussion here of how the particular text was designed: how many links there were, whether the links took the reader to something related or helpful versus something tangential, and how the links themselves appeared and behaved on the screen. All of these things are actually quite flexible, and can be altered by the individual designer without loosing the essential feature of hypertext. In order for hypertext to be hypertext it must contains a few links, but as any web developer knows, the design of those links can make an enormous difference in how effective the text is.

In the early days of the World Wide Web, developers actually had very little control over how hyperlinks were formatted on screen. Web browsers almost universally rendered them in bright blue, heavily underlined text, which made them stand out from the other text on the page (sadly, this is also the style used by this WordPress template, and writing this post has made me realize I need to change that). This kind of styling made the links not only highly noticeable, but also visually distracting, resulting in the kind of extra cognitive load that Carr describes. But starting in the mid-1990s, browsers began to support features that enable page developers to control the visual appearance of hyperlinks, allowing one to style links in more subtle and less visually distracting ways. One can even make links look very similar, or even identical, to the surrounding text, but then become more noticeable when the reader hovers the mouse pointer over the link. This sort of styling allows readers to generally ignore the links until they decide to interact with them. Browsers also added scripting features that have further enabled developers to alter the behavior of an activated link—I’ve seen several sites that display a definition for the word clicked upon in a small floating panel in the same page, so that the reader does not navigate away and lose context.

The structure of a hypertext—how many links are used and what those links connect to—also makes a significant difference in how one experiences the content. Excessive use of links, or links that take the reader to seemingly unrelated pages, commonly lead to confusion and lack of comprehension. In the early 1990s, page designs tended to use hyperlinks like Visual Basic developers used 3D effects when they were first introduced—far too often and without consideration of whether the effect was actually improving usability or just creating unnecessary visual distraction. A more judicious use of subtly-styled links that connect to truly useful and related content would no doubt result in hypertexts that would fare better in the kinds of studies that Carr refers to.

After looking through Carr’s footnotes and doing some searching (which, I must say, would have been much easier had I been able to click on the footnote as a hyperlink, and then click on his citation to view the original paper), I found some of the studies he referred to, and as I suspected, their results were actually a bit more nuanced than what he portrays in his book. Although the stories the researchers tested were harder to read in hypertext than traditional linear form, the researchers also noted “Hypertexts that were structured to capitalize on the inherent organization of the domain (usually hierarchical structures for information content) often resulted in better comprehension, memory, and navigation” (DeStefano & LeFevre 2007, 1636). Extra markers that indicated the kind of content a given hyperlink would lead to also improved navigation and learning. Sadly, the researchers did not explore whether more visually-subtle link styles decreased distraction and improved comprehension, but one would assume that these kinds of links would require less cognitive load than highly-noticeable ones.

My point is really just this: when we critique new technologies, we need to separate between the elements that are truly essential to their functions, and those that are more accidental, contextual, and contingent. In many cases, the latter can easily be changed so that the devices fit better into our lives. Engineers are well-equipped to make these kinds of distinctions, which is why, I think, more engineers need to get involved in the Christian commentary on technology. Additionally, if we fail to make these kinds of distinctions, those who do understand these technologies will no doubt find our critiques to be short-sighted, and therefore dismissible.

If you’re an engineer and you’re now convinced that you’d like to get involved in the Christian commentary on technology, there is an excellent opportunity to do so coming up very soon: The Digital Society Conference, which will be held June 22-23 on the Seattle Pacific University campus. You can read more about our motivations in my blog post about the conference, and get more details and register on the conference web site. Hope to see you there!

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