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:


  • Lust 
  • Greed
  • Gluttony
  • Sloth
  • Anger
  • Envy
  • Pride

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.