Tag Archives: technology

Becoming a Christian Engineer

In 1991, I was a fresh-faced, fairly naive information systems major who was about to graduate from college. A few months before the end of school, an alumnus who worked for Microsoft came to our seminar and showed us a video of a speech Bill Gates had made the year before at Comdex. The speech was entitled “Information at Your Fingertips” and it was Bill’s first attempt at articulating a vision for the future of PC industry, a future where everyone would have instant and easy access to whatever information they could ever need or want (he gave another more-well-known version of the speech in 1995). Watching it today, one can’t help but smile at Bill’s enormous glasses, bad haircut, and cheesy delivery, but at the time, his vision looked incredibly cool to me. I knew then that I desperately wanted to be a part of making it happen.

I jumped into the software industry shortly after graduation, and spent nearly a decade designing, building, and managing software that could deliver information to people’s fingertips. Although I had studied information systems, I did so at a small, integrative liberal arts college, so most of what I learned about the practice of software engineering was actually acquired on the job. I learned C, then C++, and a smattering of other higher-level languages. I became adept at relational databases and SQL. I read books on algorithms, object-oriented theory, design patterns, human-computer interaction, and obscure programming tricks. I learned to evaluate the efficiency of everything I did, to seek the optimal solution. I read Dilbert religiously. I watched a lot of sci-fi. I became an engineer.

As I acquired the technical skills of software programming, I also took on some of the more annoying behaviors that are often characteristic of engineers. I became quite arrogant, assuming that my computer skills were evidence of a broader intellect that enabled me to have the correct opinion on just about anything. I became easily frustrated when people chose what I deemed to be a suboptimal course of action. I figured that I was capable of solving just about any problem given the right set of tools and techniques. And by “any problem,” I meant, any problem: automating sales reports was really just a special case of solving world hunger, homelessness, and the troubled middle east. All that was needed, I naively assumed, was a bit of rational decision making, supported by better computer systems that could catalog and deliver the right information at the right time.

After a few years, however, I started to notice that with every set of problems we solved, a whole new set of problems seemed to emerge. We would start every project with the greatest ambitions and expectations, but by the end we were already starting to see its shortcomings and thinking “oh well, we’ll fix that in the next version” (and we always assumed there would be a “next version,” even though our customers would have probably preferred us to just fix the problems in the existing one). Throughout the 1990s, we did automate scores of routine tasks, and developed tools that could catalog and retrieve information in ways similar to Bill’s vision, but our greatest social problems still seemed as intractable as ever. In some ways, we may have actually made them worse.

By the late 1990s, I was starting to get pretty cynical about the software industry in particular, and technology in general, so one of my friends suggested that I read Neil Postman’s book Technopoly. It was just what I needed. I can still remember how the following passage completely stopped me in my tracks:

You need only ask yourself, What is the problem in the Middle East, or South Africa, or Northern Ireland? Is it lack of information that keeps these conflicts at fever pitch? Is it lack of information about how to grow food that keeps millions at starvation levels? Is it lack of information that brings soaring crime rates and physical decay to our cities? Is it lack of information that leads to high divorce rates and keeps the beds of mental institutions filled to overflowing? (60)

I stayed in the software industry for a few more years, but reading Technopoly eroded my faith in modern technology’s ability to solve our larger social problems. I channeled my inner grumpy old man, and started to wonder if modern technology was actually more the cause than a solution to our social ills. I read Thoreau and pined for the simpler life. We got rid of our TV and spent more time reading. We bought a dining table made from reclaimed factory floor boards. We replaced the overhead electric light with a candelabra that we diligently lit each night. I exchanged my power tools for manual ones. I replaced my GoreTex with wool. I bought a push mower. I became a Romantic.

Well, sort of. I’m a city-boy at heart, and I never really learned how to appreciate poetry, so I was never quite the card-carrying Romantic. Still, I became much more of a techno-pessimist and eagerly read all the prominent Christian critics of modern technology. I also began to wonder whether one could really be both a engineer and a sincere Christian. If, as Ellul and Borgman claimed, industrialists and engineers were primarily responsible for the modern mindset, including all the social ills that it led to, how could a sincere Christian continue to do that kind of work?

Shortly thereafter, I left software to go back to graduate school, hoping to deepen my understanding of the ways in which modern technology had influenced our culture, and determine if my Christian and my engineering selves could really co-exist. I had never been much of a historian (business and computer science are perhaps some of the most a-historical fields there are), but the critics I most admired seemed to be well-versed in the history of technology, so I thought I should pursue that as well. It turned out to be a good decision, but not for the reasons I originally thought.

As I began to study the history and sociology of technology, I discovered that most critics of technology, especially the ones who write for a popular audience, rely on a theory that is no longer supported by most historians. That theory, commonly known as “technological determinism,” posits that technologies have a kind of one-way, deterministic “impact” on any society that adopts them. The stronger forms of this theory also hold that technological innovations advance according to an internal logic that makes technological progression inevitable and unstoppable.

Although technological determinism was the dominant historical theory for the first half of the 20th century, most current historians consider it to be only half right. Technologies most certainly change the societies that adopt them, but those changes are rarely, if ever, deterministic. Instead, detailed historical cases show that consumers play very active roles in shaping our understanding of what a new device is and is good for. In some cases, they also instigate a physical or functional reshaping of the new device as they seek to make it fit better into their lives (for example, the Kosher mobile phone).

This discovery opened up the possibility that I, as a Christian who was also passionate about technology, could actively engage in the reshaping and redeeming of these new devices. When we think as a technological determinist, we are left with a fairly bleak choice: adopt the new device and suffer the inevitable consequences; or completely reject it and hope you can convince others to do so as well. As Sherry Turkle has reminded us, this is the language of addiction—it’s similar to the way an addict thinks about his or her drugs. But when we realize that both engineers and consumers play active roles in the shaping of new technologies, a new possibility arises: the opportunity for a participatory redemption.

This realization also helped me see how I might reintegrate my Christian and engineering selves. If technologies did not have deterministic impacts and did not advance entirely according to their own logic, then it was dreadfully important for more Christians to be actively involved in not only the engineering of new devices and systems, but also their early adoption. If Christians aren’t there to inject their own values into the design, production, marketing, and adoption of new technologies, we really have no excuse if we don’t like how things turn out. Blaming deterministic outcomes just obscures what is really a lack of engagement.

I also began to realize that my Romantic reaction was just as short-sighted as the techno-optimism of my youth. It was certainly good to question the purported benefits of modern technology, and perhaps reject a few things that were really more of a distraction than a help, but to deny the flourishing I felt when designing and building software was to deny an important part of who I was made to be. Not all of us are made to be farmers or poets. Some of us are made to be engineers and artisans.

Are you a Christian involved in some kind of engineering practice? If so, how do you integrate your faith and your work? What makes a Christian engineer different from a secular one?

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!

The Digital Society Conference

Digital Society Conference Logo

A little over a year ago, I attended a conference on technology, culture, and Christian spirituality down at Laity Lodge in Texas. That conference featured Albert Borgmann, the well-known philosopher of technology, as well as those who have found his work to be an inspiration for their own.

It was an engaging and fun conference, but my colleague Al Erisman and I returned from that trip feeling that something was missing from the discussion. Both of us felt that the practical experiences of those who design, develop, and direct technical projects were not yet integrated into the theoretical perspectives of the academics. I also felt that the insights from more recent science and technology studies could add more nuance and balance to the discussion.

In response, I started this blog, and Al started writing some pieces for his journal Ethix. We both spent some time working out our thoughts, and when we met again last fall, we decided to organize another conference, one that would continue the great work done down at Laity, but also build upon it and push the conversation forward in light of our current context.

I want to invite you to join us at this conference. We seek to gather a diverse set of people who are interested in rethinking the Christian commentary on technology for the digital era. Our aim is to start a new conversation that blends the theoretical perspectives from academia with the practical experiences of those who actively work with and on information technologies. Al, myself, and several of our speakers have worked in both arenas, and know how valuable it is to have each of these perspectives inform the other.

The conference will be held this summer, June 22-23 on the Seattle Pacific University campus (Seattle, WA, USA). We have a fantastic set of keynote speakers, the names of which regular readers of this blog will no doubt recognize:

They will be joined by several other panelists who will discuss the Christian commentary on technology thus far, how communities and individuals are flourishing (or withering) in online spaces, and how we can integrate our Christian faith with our engineering practice.

Space constraints require us to limit the size of this conference, so register early to guarantee your place!

If you know someone who would be interested in this conference, please forward this post to them, or send them a direct link to the conference web site: http://www.spu.edu/digitalsociety.

I hope to see many of you at the conference!