Dec 23, 2013

A Warning Against More Things

I highly recommend this essay I found recently: The Tyranny of Things.  Though it was written in the late 19th century there is much wisdom here.  It seems particularly relevant now as matrialism so engulfs our culture and hearts during the "gift giving season."  In short, it shows us that more posessions lead to more trouble and anxiety rather than less, though the latter is our hope.

Aug 20, 2013

My Dad, 1947-2013

My dad died just over three weeks ago.  He was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) in 2008 and I am grateful he lived to see and enjoy my children and to give away my sister at her wedding.  Progressively more technology was invested in him in these past five years.  He moved from a cane to a walker and eventually to an electric wheelchair.  Each of these helped him maintain his ability to move from place to place.  To transport him in the wheelchair, my parents acquired a minivan fitted with a ramp so mom could drive him to doctor's appointments and to get a haircut.  As his hands grew weaker, he used a fork and spoon with large rubber grips to eat.  Dad eventually needed a CPAP to help him breathe.  Near the end he had a catheter.  He had a hospital bed that could raise and lower his head or legs.  The controls had large buttons he could still use himself.  I don't know all the medications he was taking, but there seemed to be more of them every few months. 

I would like to say thank you to the engineers, researchers, doctors, and technicians that invented and provided all this technology to make my dad more comfortable and let him take part in our family life for a bit longer.  You did something good and these things were a blessing to our family.  I had the time to talk with him, watch my kids play with him, and hear him tell me he was proud of me.  The day before he died, I got to sit with him and hold his hand while he drifted back to sleep.  I could feel those hands that I once thought so big and strong and believed they could fix anything; that day, they barely gripped mine in their weakness.  To those that made all this technology, please keep it up as there are many other families that suffer with someone with ALS and countless other diseases that you can help alleviate.

But one thing that my dad and our whole family can clearly see is that technology cannot really save us.  It may hide the pain and slow the progression of a disease.  It may make you mobile and comfortable for longer.  But it cannot and will not stop death for any of us.  Technology can be used for great good, but we must all face death.

It is far more important to be prepared for death and God's judgment.  My dad knew this too.  He believed in Christ as his savior.  He had served as both deacon and elder in various churches.  He made sure we were regular in worship.  The church was packed, so many people came to his funeral. A few men I don't know from my parent's church introduced themselves to me and shared about the joy it was to get to know my dad in his last few years.  Dad finished well.

For my part, I hope to remember these things as I "do technology," that I would design in the Good for others in the technology I make.  But more importantly, I hope to point my family and those around me beyond the technology and other things that cannot save, to the God who hates our sins and provides His own Son to take the punishment for those sins that we may be forgiven and adopted.  That is a far greater thing than all the technology in the world.  My dad knew that and taught me the same.

Jun 19, 2013

Articles on the Down Side of Technology

Here are a couple articles I saw recently related to technology and the church.

Why I Object to Screen Preaching - This gets into some good and bad reasons to object to preaching via screen, particularly the "multi-campus" model you see now.

Is Our Trust in Technology Trumping Our Natural Instincts? - Short, but makes you think about how interesting mistakes and spontaneity can be lost when we rely on our gadgets.

When We Hate What We Love - The title doesn't really match the point, which is our technology only draws out what was already in us.  More technology or less don't really change the core of who we are.

Scholars Sound the Alert From the 'Dark Side' of Tech Innovation - Though it rambles a bit, this article covers a conference this past May about the downsides of current technological innovations.

Jun 6, 2013

Why Does a Lack of Technology Surprise Us?

Recently my son asked me what online games I played when I was young.  I wish I had a picture of his face when I told him that such a thing didn't exist when I was growing up.  He had a mixture of surprise and amazement to think someone lived without this experience.  I explained I had stand-alone games (and got nostalgic for Sierra on-line and Lucasarts) like Minecraft, so I wasn't completely deprived.

This made me think about how I react to hearing stories of people with less technology than I have.  You might think of the Amish who choose this path, or stories from missionaries in far-flung places where even clean drinking water is scarce, or just back to the 1960's when we went to the moon on computers that are colossally out of date compared to a modern laptop.  I react the same way my son did: surprise, perhaps a bit of shock that whole groups of people do without the technology I have.

Why is that?  Why surprise?  I'd like to suggest two reasons.

One may be our cultural immersion.  We're so immersed in our own culture and the technology in it that we have difficulty even seeing the technology - it becomes invisible.  Most people in our culture have refrigerators and cell phones, so we don't think about it.  However, when they're gone we're surprised by the things that are suddenly visible by their absence.

Another, related reason may be our assumption of necessity of a particular technology.  We assume that we need a car, a grocery store, a refrigerator, etc. to be able to have eggs.  Not really.  A family in our church has a chicken coop and they have to give away eggs they get so many.  Or think of GPS systems in cars.  Maps and street signs lasted us several decades for navigation on the road.  If we haven't thought it through or seen otherwise, we may not realize that a certain technology isn't necessary and the same task can be done in another way.  Or, maybe that task isn't even necessary!

What about you?  Do you have a different reaction to a lack of technology?  Why?

Jun 4, 2013

Feel the need for digital detox?

I saw this article that describes a Digital Detox camp for adults. No cell phones, tablets, etc. and no talking about work.  Instead, the campers participate in essentially Boy Scout camp activities (though the reference to the 70's seems odd, considering it sounds like the camping experience my son and I shared just a few weeks ago).

Interesting quote:
"When you were a kid, your life was not dominated by the technology that it is now," he said. "We want to take people back to that easy state of living where their only concern is 'what's the next activity that I'm going to right now and what's going to be the next fun thing?'"
I take a little exception to this because our lives have been surrounded by technology for a long time.  However, I also take his point about being surrounded by screens & digital technology.   That technology demands (and gets) our attention and much of it is designed to automatically entertain us.  I think this kind of week fights against a couple things: mediated connections we think we have on social media, thinking "fun" can best be had via a relatively passive experience with a screen, and an attachment to work that eats into other parts of our lives.

Our family is going on vacation soon and we're going to leave the laptop & iPads behind.  I know we'll struggle with that, but we're taking board games and books and will hopefully remember how to have fun together without our screens in between us.

May 25, 2013

What Is a Technologist's Responsibility After the Product Is Sold?

Go read this article on Wired: Alfred Anaya Put Secret Compartments in Cars. So the DEA Put Him in Prison.  This gets at the heart of a question I've mulled over for some time.  What is the moral responsibility of someone that designs and/or builds a technology once it is purchased by the customer?

To summarize my position, the designer and builder must make a good quality product, well suited to it's purpose, and the purpose must be for good and within moral boundaries God has given us.  In this view, the designer & builder are responsible if those become clearly not true after the sale.

However, this article is about Alfred Anaya who made custom secret compartments in cars, that at least some customers used to smuggle drugs.  He was eventually convicted of federal crimes and is in jail for decades - much longer than those that actually ran the drug ring.  He never ran drugs himself, nor saw them, but saw a large stash of cash one time in a secret compartment he was repairing.

The legal issues aside for the moment, what is the moral aspect of this?  In general, I think the technologist cannot control whether someone uses their product for good or evil.  I can imagine many scenarios where I would like a hidden compartment in my car. Any technology can be used for evil, so the technologist cannot possibly design out all evil potential.  The only other criteria I can see where he may have failed is to do technology within moral boundaries.  Apparently, compartments like the ones he built are popular among drug runners.  Should he have gotten out of that business because some customers may be using them for illegal activities?  Sould he have kept a customer receipt that he submitted to police every now and then?  Should he be responsible even when he only suspects someone of running drugs and risks carges of a false report himself?  Are there legitimate, good reasons for someone to install one of these in their car?  Yes, and on that basis I think this is a bad prescedent.

Agree or disagree?

May 22, 2013

Vending Machine with a Prick for the Conscience

This is an old story, but Facebook's offices have vending machines to dispense replacement computer accessories for employees.  They're free, but there are two things that make the employees think twice about just emptying the machine for themselves.  First, the retail price of each item is displayed so the employee knows just how much they're costing the company by grabbing one.  Second, they have to swipe their employee ID card for it to dispense an item.  This way, those that do abuse the system can be found fairly easily.

I really like this use of technology.  It indicates a level of trust of the employees to do the right thing - grab what they need and no more.  The employee is shown how much they're costing the company when they take one of these items so that they must morally justify it to themselves (and to not leave the power cord where the dog can chew it up in the future).  Also, there is more accountability than what you get from an unlocked cabinet with the equipment just piled up in it, ready to take.

And, it's good for the company.  They claim the cost of managing replacement computer accessories has dropped by 35%.  That's a lot of time that IT people can spend on projects instead of deciding whether or not to replace someone's keyboard and then running it out to them.

So, here's some praise for an excellent use of technology to make life a little easier for everyone involved and supports good moral choices.

May 9, 2013


This was an interesting article: 

 It touches on the seeming importance of Twitter (only 16% of Internet users are on it), how much the 140 character format constrains communication, how it encourages narcissism, and how "followers" can be purchased for artificial popularity. The point about encouraging narcissism particularly struck me. Here's the writer's description of Twitter: 

 "A technology that incentivizes its status-conscious, attention-starved users to yearn for ever more followers and retweets..." 

I think any social media can encourage narcissism by letting you at least think you're reaching and influencing lots of people. We've even modernized and systematized narcissism by quantifying your popularity. You can easily track your followers, friends, likes, and retweets and check your popularity against others. 

 For myself, it's made me think about how I use social media. I'm not less sinful because I don't tweet (except to feed blog posts there) - I can be just as narcissistic through an paper newsletter. However, it seems that Twitter is a technology that should be used cautiously at risk of encouraging love for yourself.

May 4, 2013

A long, tech support filled week

This was the last week of classes at WCU and usually the busiest week of the semester for my office. Many assignments come due that need tech support, plus all the equipment that we check out comes back in now. I usually keep work betweem 8 am and 5 pm during the week, but this week I had to keep up with email at all hours.

I write this because 1) I want to explain why I haven't posted this week, 2) to say "thank you" to the many folks that work hard in support to keep things running, and 3) to make us aware of each other's work. I don't see the entirety of how most other people spend their time at work, so one trap to fall in to is to assume they don't work as hard as you do. Even if their work is not visible, it takes a lot of folks to keep a sizeable university (or business) going. One of the guys at WCU that drives the garbage truck is my co-den leader. This past Monday he looked worn out and he explained how he had to get in much earlier than usual and work long hours the last two weeks of the semester.

I have to tip my hat even more to the small business owners that don't have this specialized support and have to do it all themselves.

So, to those that do the hard front-line work of teaching (or whatever you do for your big organization), remember there's an army of folks backing you up. We want you to succeed, which is why we do what we do, even if hidden away much of the time.

Apr 25, 2013

Outline from Talk at Highlands UMC

I had a great time visiting with the folks at Highlands UMC last evening. They invited me to speak and I talked about "Thinking about Technology as a Christian." They had some great questions afterwards and I met a few fellow Georgia Tech grads. For anyone interested, here's my outline.

Intro: Our technological world

What is technology?
-God gave technology

Technology is value-infused
-Uses scarce resources
-Makes designer/builder and user "neighbors"
-Reveals designer’s values
-Its selection and use reveals our values
-Technology work can witness to God

God places importance on technology
-Technology-related stories in the Bible (Ark, Tower of Babel, Tabernacle, Crucifixion)
-Technology required for worship

How to think about a technology
-Two reactions: fearful rejection or enthusiastic embrace
-Look for good and harm in each

-Technology as a concept is good, but must be used wisely & thoughtfully
-Technology is dignified, even commanded by God
-Any technology is somewhere on the spectrum of helpful & hurtful
-Technology makers: pursue what is good out of love for neighbor
-Technology cannot save us

Apr 23, 2013

Top Seven Reasons to Post Sermons Online

A while back I reviewed the book SimChurch (part 1 and part 2) which argued in favor of virtual/online forms of doing church.  In those reviews, I strongly objected to making a virtual church your personal church experience & place of membership mainly due to the need for physical presence to administer the sacraments and to fellowship without a mediating technology.  While I still think this way, I've put more thought lately into posting sermons online.  Our church plant posts sermons online and I've come to see a number of benefits to even smaller churches doing this.
  1. The Great Commission: Our call is to "make disciples" and to "teach" them (Matt 28:18-20) and preaching is a primary means for this teaching.  Making sermons available is much like the work of the Gideons placing Bibles all over - get the Word out there for any who will benefit from it.
  2. Nursery workers: I love to volunteer in the nursery so other parents can relax and participate in worship with less distraction (and appreciate that service myself!).  However, I miss the sermon.  Even if the sermon is piped in to the nursery, crying or active children makes it hard to hear.  If I can download it later, I can keep up with a sermon series.
  3. Members with short- or long-term illness: My dad has ALS and isn't able to come on Sunday mornings to worship anymore.  However, he can watch a broadcast on TV or listen via a podcast.  This technology is a great solution for someone without physical access and I'm grateful that he has it.
  4. Visitors: A collection of recent sermons gives potential visitors a chance to learn a bit about your church.  They get a flavor for how the pastor preaches and for the broad style by going through the archive (topical, sequential through a book, or a mix)
  5. Christians outside your church: Our church's men's group went through Ephesians recently, and now my parent's church is going through a sermon series on it.  Listening through those has been a great way to reinforce what I learned or see another application for a passage.  
  6. Repeat listening inside your church: If I'm particularly struck or confused by a sermon, I can listen to it again and pause if I need to.
  7. Redeem the time: We all have time in the car, doing chores, or relaxing after the kids are in bed when we can have some audio going in the background.  Providing sermons gives us more "meat" to listen to while doing those other activities.
Put any I missed in the comments below.

Apr 18, 2013

Reflecting on the Boston Attack

I've followed the news of the bomb attack in Boston.  Many, such as a pastor in Boston, have written on how to react to these events.  We now understand that the bombs were made in part from "kitchen pressure cookers packed with explosives, nails and other lethal shrapnel."  That got me thinking about the nature of technology and something I think I can safely claim:

Any technology can be used for evil.

Doing evil is inherent in our nature as the creators of technology.  We are fallen and sinful.  "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" - Jeremiah 17:9.  We are also creative, able to create amazing works of practical use and art out of the earth's raw materials.  Put those together and we can creatively make technology to increase our ability to sin.

I vaguely remember some cooking with a pressure cooker when I was growing up, and that seems so incongruous compared to the events in Boston.  How could the same device be used in both ways?  But it is so, and we must face it - face the sin and evil that dwells in human nature.

There may be an appropriate government/security/regulation type response to this - I won't claim to speak to that.  What I do know is that no amount of technology will stop all sinful acts.  We're too creative for that.  More importantly, the sinful heart needs the Gospel.

UPDATE: According to the news, one suspect is dead and the other captured in critical condition.  It is right to expect justice from the state, but let me say it specifically about this young man: what he needs most is the Gospel.

Jan 21, 2013

Religion in Computer Games

I found these recently - two short videos that discuss the role of religion in computer games:

Part 1 and Part 2

They were certainly thought provoking.  Some main points include that religion is treated in a shallow way (at least the "lore" of it) but that including religious content could add significant depth to a game.  I'm not much of a gamer anymore, but one of my favorites was Deus Ex as it touched on a number of philosophical and moral themes.  In addition to the challenge of the game, I got to think through some things and how the character I controlled should act.

I think they left out other reasons religion is not touched on in depth, which is the potential to resist identifying with something you don't like or disagree with.  People have very strongly held beliefs and feelings about religion, and that can either drive them to or from a game no matter the quality of the gameplay.  Imagine if Starcraft (one of the most successful games ever) also had some very deep religious content, such as a current religion being attributed to each of the three factions.  Someone could find it difficult to identify themselves, even if only in a game, with another religion.  We may want to be a hero that saves the day, but not switch religions.  And, I could see that lead to commercial failure.

I know there is some talk in the gaming world of electronic games being considered an art form.  Perhaps some are.  However, a major historic driver for art is the expression of religious belief.  I agree that games cut themselves off from greater things by avoiding religion.

Jan 16, 2013

Healthcare Technology, Suffering, and the Christian

This is one of the most thoughtful pieces I've read about our relationship to technology.  The article focuses on healthcare technology, but the points about a Christian view of suffering are key to thinking about any modern technology.

Modern Healthcare: Are We Playing God?