Monday, June 10, 2019

Technology and the Deadly Sin of Gluttony

Technology is not evil, but it amplifies our power and abilities. It can thus amplify our ability to sin. As an example, consider gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins. Taken literally, the term gluttony refers to excessive eating.
Painting attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
The Deadly Sin of Gluttony

How does overeating relate to technology? The foods we eat today are technological marvels. Just trying to interpret the ingredient labels on the grocery shelf requires a science degree, where we find a seemingly pernicious concoction of chemicals that makes me question whether it should be ingested or ignited. Still, much of the engineering of food is beneficial, such as preserving the food longer than it naturally would last, or making it look and taste better. At the same time, we get some unfortunate side-effects from our ability to modify our food in complex ways. Much of the food on the grocery shelf is now a high-dose, quick delivery system for sugar and fat, packaged for convenience and priced low, making it easy for me to slip into gluttony.

Gluttony is not only lurking at your local grocery store. Restaurants also tend to cater to our gluttonous tendencies, especially in the US, so that an American-sized portion fills a large plate -- or should I say platter? We love to supersize our meals. Unfortunately, we rarely call this problem what it really is:  gluttony. At most we might get some small admonishment from our physician or a health magazine to watch our weight, but rarely is anyone so bold to say that our habit of excessive eating is a sin -- the sin of gluttony.

Beyond the literal gluttony of overeating, technology can also tempt us into more figurative gluttonous sins. Technological gluttony is consuming much more energy and other natural resources than we really need. The United States used 17% of world energy in 2016, but represented only 5% of the population. Much of that energy was likely used for good and valuable reasons, but we may need to also examine ourselves for wasteful usage. Are we using energy-efficient appliances? Choosing energy-efficient means of transportation? Technological gluttony is the purchase of so many technical gadgets that we can’t really even use them all effectively. Engineers can be particularly enamored by high tech devices, justifying that our profession requires that we stay current when, in truth, we are gorging on gadgets. I struggle with this personally. I am too easily tempted by cutting-edge technology, even when it is several times more expensive than technology that I already possess, which is just slightly older and is still functioning perfectly fine. I justify myself by pointing to the enhanced features and capabilities: “...but an 8K television is so much higher resolution! Isn’t that higher quality worth an exorbitant price?” Technological gluttony is binging on Amazon. We receive a stack of boxes at the front door the next day just for the sheer thrill of shopping, even when we don’t actually need or cannot actually afford all of it. The technology of one-click Internet shopping is not evil, but it can enable our bad behavior if we let it.

To avoid the literal gluttony of overeating we go on a diet, measuring our waistline or checking the scale regularly to monitor progress. Likewise, to avoid figurative gluttony, we may need to go on a diet regarding our energy use, gadget consumption, or whatever we are tempted to binge consume. Measure your technological waistline by reviewing your monthly electricity bill. The utility provider in my region even gives me a handy chart to compare my use to similar sized homes in my neighborhood. Measure your technological waistline by counting up how many tech gadgets are gathering dust in a drawer because you bought them on a whim or bought a newer one while the old one was still perfectly functional. Measure your technological waistline by totaling up your annual technological purchases. Are you purchasing more tech than really necessary?

The opposite of the vice of gluttony is the virtue of temperance, i.e., moderation. Temperance is a sign of contentment. Paul writes to the church in Philippi about this virtue: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13, NIV)  Perhaps we can seek to emulate Paul, being content in all circumstances, including with our technology.

Technology is not evil, it is in fact a good gift within God’s creation and part of our fulfillment of the Genesis 1:28 call for humans to steward and cultivate the earth. However, too much of a good thing, whether food or tech, can become the sin of gluttony.


Monday, April 1, 2019

Technology and the Deadly Sin of Pride


Painting attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
The Deadly Sin of Pride
 The doctor would not believe her. My daughter experienced a variety of illnesses over several years, never feeling quite well. It was more than simple colds or flu, affecting different areas of her body. Sometimes the pain was in her jaw area, leading her to suspect it was related to her teeth in some way. You might think that because the pain was also present in other areas far from her mouth, her suspicions were thus unfounded.  However, my own dentist has a chart in the lobby exclaiming that your dental health impacts the health of your whole body -- so this idea was not entirely unreasonable. She went to several physicians and a couple dentists, trying to get an accurate diagnosis. Each time the medical professional did a cursory exam or ran a simple test, concluding that her symptoms were temporary and unrelated, ending with a prescription for painkillers. The physicians chose progressively more aggressive drugs over the course of multiple visits. My daughter, believing this was simply treating the symptom rather than the cause, resisted taking the strong painkillers. She was even put in the position of needing to question the danger of addiction when a doctor pushed to give her opioid-based medications. She repeatedly and persistently asked if they shouldn’t look closer to determine the underlying problem. Instead, they applied band-aid solutions that obscured the real issue and provided only temporary relief with the potential for serious side-effects. Her voice went unheard and her struggle to get someone to look closer, in order to obtain an accurate diagnosis, was all to no avail over multiple years.

As an ordinary patient with no special clout, my daughter’s voice wasn’t heard. Yet downplaying or downright dismissing the voice of the patient is not just an injustice experienced by the less powerful of our society. Even someone with the influence of fame and wealth can experience this treatment -- actress Selma Blair reported that doctors did not take her seriously as she complained about various health issues, until she finally was properly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/culture/story/selma-blair-opens-tears-relief-ms-diagnosis-61310469  ).  It seems that there is something characteristic about the medical profession that makes it easy to dismiss the ideas of the patient, regardless of who they are or what they have done. Of course, not all medical professionals ignore their patients. Dr. Paul Kalanithi writes eloquently about how he listened carefully to his patients as a practicing neurosurgeon in his book When Breath Becomes Air. However, the book is even more poignant when Kalanthi turns to his experience not as a doctor, but as a patient -- he died of lung cancer and the book was published posthumously, with a tear-jerker afterward by his wife. Kalanthi found that even his voice, as a physician, was depreciated or even politely dismissed as soon as he took on the status of patient. 

These patients were persistent. Yet their medical caregivers were too sure of themselves, too certain of their expertise to bother with the suggestions or concerns of the patient, too quick to presume the patient had nothing of importance to contribute, and too wary that extra tests would result in extra paperwork and the displeasure of the insurance company. Some of these reasons can be traced to underlying problems such as overwork, or sins such as greed. Sometimes the cause for this troublesome behavior is the sin of pride.

A medical professional takes pride in their work, and to some degree this is proper and worthy of respect. However, when pride in one’s work slips into pride in one’s self, it become sinful, egotistical, self-aggrandizement. The doctor becomes God in their own eyes; the patient becomes a servant that should worship them, instead of a neighbor in need of love. Pride can blind the physician to their own failings. It will narrow their thinking so that they filter all conversations and all new information based on how well it bolsters their own narcissistic narrative. Their expertise leads to pride; pride leads to their downfall.

Engineers can succumb to pride just as easily. They are also experts -- in technology rather than medicine, with users, rather than patients. Their technological expertise can easily lead to arrogant pride, a smug assumption that one’s own wisdom outweighs the insights from anyone else. Engineers can become so egotistical that they hardly listen to the users of their technological products, blaming “user error” instead of taking responsibility for non-intuitive designs, or pretending a product is “ahead of its time”, instead of admitting it was not well received. Prideful engineers become blinded to their mistakes so that they do not take proper precautions. In contrast, humility would persuade engineers to seek designs for their product that avoid single points of failure or that have built-in self-checks. Humility would persuade engineers to embrace peer review and testing to shake out all of the bugs in their software. Pride in one’s technology design can lead to failures that humility would have avoided.

The designers of technology are not the only ones tempted by pride. All of us using technology are also vulnerable to this sin: when we purchase it, use it, and rely on it. Although sins such as gluttony or envy might drive us to purchase technology, pride also lurks around our technology shopping cart. Pride can drive us to purchase gadgets we do not truly need but simply desire, as a display of wealth and power. If you purchased technology that is highly visible, such as a sports car or the latest smartphone, did you purchase it for functionality or for status?  Once purchased, technology can also be the instrument by which we communicate further prideful boasting. Pride easily slips into our Facebook posts, in our LinkedIn profiles, and even on the license plates of our fancy cars (check out this vanity license plate I saw the other day!)
Pride can also result from trusting in our technology instead of God. The amplifying power of technology makes us more powerful and this power easily seduces us into pride in ourselves. Psalm 20 calls us to keep our trust in the Lord, not our tech: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”

What happened with my daughter? Fortunately, she did not give up.  She went back to the doctor. She went to a second doctor. She went back to her dentist. She went to a second dentist. Finally, the second dentist took a closer look realizing that an X-ray might not show everything they needed to see. And there it was: a large, menacing abscess. Here was the poison that had been making her ill for years. Here was the source of her pain.  A root canal done five years earlier had blocked the root, leaving her open to infection. He sent her for emergency surgery at an endodontist, who quickly drained the infection and later did a corrective surgery. The infection had worked all the way to her jawbone and will take a while to heal. But now that the source of the problem has been identified and eradicated, she will heal.

We are thankful for her persistence and thankful for a diagnosis and treatment. At the same time, we are frustrated that she had to work so hard to be heard, frustrated that the medical professions were too busy or too proud to listen. Before I throw too many stones for bad practice, as a technological expert I need to recognize the glass house I live in myself. When have I been too proud to listen?


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Technology & the Seven Deadly Sins

Painting attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last ThingsFacebook is out. Instagram and Snapchat are in. Or so it seems from the current communication patterns in my family recently. Social media might be a technological fad, but it does point out an underlying truth:  it is tough to keep up with technology. It seems to come and go, as if it is a fashion trend. Consider the change in fortunes for some of the top social media technologies in the past decade. I built the following chart using website traffic data from rank2traffic.com.  One of the earliest social media sites, Myspace, peaked in 2009, but has steadily declined since then while others that started around then have grown substantially.

Social Media Website Sessions Per Month
In order to see these trends, I had to leave out the two largest brands: Facebook and YouTube. They are an order of magnitude more popular. One might quibble about whether YouTube counts as social media, since it focuses more on video than on text communication, but these categories blur, as Facebook also has considerable visual content (including images and video), and others are focused on images as well, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest.


Social Media Website Sessions Per Month


Another nuance here that perhaps only an engineer could love is that this only shows website traffic, which may be unfair to platforms that have focused on mobile devices, such as twitter.  The number of tweets sent via the twitter website is likely eclipsed by the number sent within the twitter app. Similarly, the decline in Facebook traffic after 2016 may not be as pronounced as this data implies, as much of the traffic may have shifted to the Facebook app on mobile devices.


Even engineers like me find it difficult to stay current with the flood of new gadgets, exotic engineered materials, new software apps, advances in medicine, advances in computing, and more. As technology improves and grows, our scientific understanding of the world deepens. As technology matures and expands, our ability to control our environment increases. Yet, for all that technological control we have gained, why do we individually so often feel rather out of control? Perhaps it is our natural reaction to change.


We change our world and ourselves with technology, yet human nature remains the same. We remain God’s creatures made in his own image, created good. God created us male and female, in community and relationship. Even genetic engineering does not change our human need to connect. God created us with an innate ability to recognize the divine and a special gift to worship our Creator. Even precise descriptions of subatomic quantum effects do not change our human intuition that there is something more to life than that which meets the eye. God made us the pinnacle of his creation with delegated authority and responsibility to care for the world. Even the independence we attain through technology (such as personal transportation like the automobile or personal communication like smartphones) does not change our mandate to be stewards of creation, as representatives and in service to the Creator. In fact, our role as stewards gets at the root of our ability to create technology. It is not surprising that God created humans with innate ability to make tools. We are homo faber, man the tool maker. As stewards, we have the unique ability to value the creation, to recognize the embedded worth of the resources around us as a gift.  We unwrap the gift by cultivating and developing the creation with sensitive care. Our tool-making ability suits us well for these tasks.


We change our world and ourselves with technology, yet human nature remains the same. We remain fallen, tainted by sin so that we are inclined to hate God and each other. We remain in need of redemption by the blood of the Lamb. While we humans have produced many new technologies, we have not invented any new means of salvation nor have we invented any new sins. I suggest that every human foible and failing that appears novel the first time we see it depicted in the latest video or read about it in our newsfeeds it is not new at all.  It is really the same news about sin, the same old wolf dressed up in new sheep’s clothing. Creative humans continually develop new tools, and fallen humans continually pursue old sins with the latest tools. There is nothing new under the sun, in a spiritual sense.


However, I do not want to minimize the danger of new tools in our fallen hands. Even if the sin is old hat, technology is an amplifier. The impact of a sin can be far greater when we use tools.
Technological amplification of sin can be the result of unintentional mistakes due to our finite nature. For example, the primary design purpose of a hammer is not bodily injury (though your thumb may disagree). Nevertheless, a hammer in the hands of an angry sinner amplifies their power to injure. Technological amplification of sin can also be the result of malicious acts due to our fallen nature. For example, the primary design purpose of a switchblade is bodily injury.  This weapon in the hands of an angry sinner greatly increases their ability to draw blood.


As Christians, how can we improve our discernment, remaining wary of technological amplification of sin? For Christians working in technical areas, we have an even greater responsibility to prophetically point out these effects and when possible, to direct our tech designs towards minimizing sinful abuse. One strategy to redeem your personal use of modern technology is to keep in mind the ancient list of the seven deadly sins, identified since Medieval times:



Lord willing, in future blogs I hope to dive into further details on each of these vices, exploring how technology can be the new sheep’s clothing that dresses up that old wolf of sin.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Giving up Tech for Lent

I don’t think that word "tech" means what you think it means.  However, I think you’re on to something nevertheless. Let me explain.

Every spring, a number of my friends and acquaintances announce something they are giving up for Lent (which runs from Ash Wednesday until Easter).  The possibilities of items for denial are almost endless.  Food seems to be a popular sacrifice.  Aside from the traditional and generic omission of meat for the season, others choose to deprive themselves of food, such as pizza, chocolate, or hamburgers; or beverages, such as coffee, soft drinks, or alcohol.   Certain activities or behaviors also commonly make the list, such as profanity, smoking, politics, gossiping, dating, or shopping. The one deprivation that catches my eye the most, however, is giving up technology for Lent.

Giving up technology is not as easy as one might imagine.  Technology is really any tool or device designed by people using natural and artificial materials to accomplish a practical goal. Are you ready to walk to work for Lent? Cars, busses, trains, and planes are all examples of technology. Are you ready to spend Lent in the buff? Clothing that is chemically engineered to be stain and wrinkle-resistant and color-fast is technology.  Shoes that are mechanically engineered to cushion your step (for hundreds of thousands of steps) and keep your feet warm and dry are technology.  It is everywhere, a ubiquitous fact of life, an engrained part of our culture and society.  Thus when my friends say they are giving up tech, I suspect they do not mean all technology, but rather some specific technologies.  It feels a little like when the pastor says he wants to keep tech out of the sermon and focus on the message.  What he means is limiting the use of PowerPoint.  I don’t think he means no longer using a microphone, electric lights, carpet, heating & air conditioning, piano, reinforced concrete foundations, … you get the idea.

If not all of technology, then what do they really mean to give up for Lent?  Sometimes the sacrifice is identified a bit more specifically.  I see people giving up Netflix, email, texting, Windows, Instagram, or Facebook.  (Wait a minute... I learned they were giving up Facebook by posting it on Facebook.  Does that still count?)  Regardless, at least these contrite souls are a bit more nuanced about the technology they will forego.  Like a foodie who gives up red velvet cake, a techie that gives up Xbox for Lent is sacrificing a certain aspect of their life, not because it is bad, but because it is good – and that good thing could distract from a more spiritual focus, introspection, and reflection as we approach Good Friday and Easter.  This approach recognizes that technology, like all of culture, is a good gift from our Creator.  Technology is part of who we are as humans, and creating culture is what we do.  We create music, legislation, novels, communities, delicious recipes, evolving languages, games, and yes, technology.

I suspect that a few folks really do mean all of technology, considering it inherently evil, putting it in the category of vices we can’t entirely shake, so we give up for a time in hopes of ultimately escaping, as they might for profanity, or gluttony.  I think this is a foundational mistake.  Granted, many societal and personal ills are associated with technology.  However, technology itself is not evil, but like other cultural aspects, it can be tainted and corrupted by sin.  Just as we, out of love, profess to hate the sin, but not the sinner, we can find the good in technology. We can work to recognize how our fallen nature has turned God’s good gift of technology into something warped that we idolize, that we use to our own selfish advantage, or that simply distracts us from our true calling.

With that understanding of technology, I can understand and respect giving up certain technologies for Lent.  Lent might be the opportunity to take a break from Facebook to reflect on how we can use it to glorify God and love our neighbor.  Perhaps you will give up email for a time to ponder on how communication with friends, family, and colleagues can be a blessing when used properly.  Perhaps you will give up texting to consider whether you are prone to spreading gossip via your phone.  Stepping back is sometimes the best way to get perspective.  Then jump back in and show us how it is done.  Demonstrate by example how to use technology appropriately and righteously.