Monday, January 23, 2023

Facebook Generations: Four Principles for Redeeming our Communication Devices

Some cultural observers show disdain for teenagers using smartphones during family dinner or for couples checking messages during a date. Their thesis is that people should always give priority to in-person communication. While I generally agree, I think such decisions should be more nuanced – on some occasions, electronic communication may be better.

Every Generation Used the Facebook of Their Day

Even before Facebook and smartphones, people did not solely communicate face-to-face. For as long as people have dispersed beyond the range of hearing, humans have used technological tools to continue conversing. Faced with separation, clever people have invented communication technology to serve as a proxy for face-to-face conversation. 

Go back one generation. When my mother was young, she responded to a call for pen pals in The Banner, the denominational magazine of her church. The magazine was setting up a network of “Banner Pals”, connecting young people from the Christian Reformed Church with others who wanted to make new friends. My mom, Marianne, was 10 or 11, living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was paired with Joanne, a girl who lived in Monroe, Washington. They wrote back and forth for some time, sharing little details of their lives. In those days, long-distance phone calls were costly and thus rare, so letters were the only economical way for children to communicate regularly over a distance.

Go back another generation. My paternal grandparents were married not long after World War II.  My grandfather was a returning GI, having served in the Pacific theater, including time as one of the first soldiers on the front lines to operate the new technology of radar. The wedding was in the hometown of my grandmother: Bozeman, Montana. But my grandfather’s family was  1,300 miles away in Racine, Wisconsin. To ensure their congratulatory message was received on the day of the ceremony, my grandfather’s family in Racine used the asynchronous messaging medium of the day: a Western Union telegram.

The telegraph was not new at that time. We must go back three more generations to the time the first telegraph message was sent by Samuel Morse in 1844. The telegram was sent from Washington D.C. to Baltimore. The operator at the far end translated the dots and dashes of Morse Code to reveal the message “What hath God Wrought.” 

Morse invented the telegraph in response to grief. While he was away on a trip, his wife fell ill. Letters about the severity of her sickness reached him too late; he was not able to return in time for her funeral. As he mourned her loss, he dreamed of a means of rapid communication over a distance, leading to his invention of the telegraph.

New technologies do not always replace old technologies, and even when they do, there can be considerable overlap.  The last telegram was sent in India on July 14, 2013. During the 169 years from Morse’s first message until this last Indian missive, the telegraph would be outpaced by the telephone, radio, television, cellular phones, text messages, and Internet communication services such as email, web video conferencing, and instant messaging. 

Go back one hundred generations. In ancient Greece, the philosopher Plato imagined a conversation with the inventor of letters (and thus written communication), but saw its dark side: “this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” (Plato, Phaedrus)  It was true – verbal accounts faded. Civilization likely predates writing, but it is pre-historic and largely unknown. The only ancient cultural insights and historical events known today are because they were written down. For example, the Biblical stories – from Adam and Eve through the near destruction of humankind save Noah and his family – all of this was passed down through oral tradition until Moses wrote them down in the Pentateuch.

Technology has been used to communicate over time and distance for all of human recorded history. Rather than disdaining it, let’s discern some principles for redeeming it.

Redeeming Technological Communication

All good gifts in nature and culture have their roots in the good creation. Jellyfish, mountain peaks, the spray of an ocean wave, music, arboriculture, legislation, calculus, poetry, medicine, and chemistry – all good gifts from our Creator. Each is also tainted by sin, but by God’s grace can still provide benefit. From the beginning God called all humans to steward these gifts, i.e., to develop and cultivate them. Today, God also calls Christians to redeem them. Let’s consider some principles that could guide our use of the good gifts of communication technology.

Principle 1: Do not unthinkingly use tech to communicate

The content of the communication is affected by the tools we use, as McLuhan famously quipped, “the medium is the message." We should have a strong preference for in-person communication. If sent electronically, many messages would lose meaning. Physical presence is important for messages such as a hug of comfort, a good-natured slap on the back for good work, or freshly picked flowers delivered in person as a token of apology.  Many spiritual practices and sacraments are best done in person. Showing love in fellowship, providing acts of service and care, discipling and teaching, partaking in the Lord’s Supper, congregational singing in worship – these are all best done together, in person. 

If in-person communication is usually better, then electronic messages are a poor substitute in many situations. If we choose the medium of email to break up with someone we have been dating, this shows disrespect and lack of care. Difficult conversations like this ought not to be minimized. If we intentionally choose a less intimate medium for the message, we are evading our responsibilities. Likewise, choosing email to fire an employee sends a message of arrogance, indifference, and discourtesy. If we intentionally choose a less personal medium for our message, it does not convey strength.  It conveys a lack of courage and shirking of responsibility. 

One of the reasons that communication over distance can be disrespectful or uncaring is that humans are made in the image of God. They are worthy of our time and care. Making an effort to communicate in a more personal setting shows our care for our fellow image-bearers. Communicating remotely over a distance can feel remote and distant. 

We ought not unthinkingly or habitually choose technology as our default means of communication. However, there are times we might rightly choose to communicate via technology, which is where the remaining three principles come into play.

Principle 2: Recognize limitations in tech communication

When messaging, we sometimes use a sideways smiley face :-) in text-based mediums or a smiley face emoji in instant messages. We do so because we recognize the lack of body-language signals that would help our recipient recognize our tone. We want to be sure the receiver understands the nuance of our message, so we add a visual hint.

Even when communicating in person, what we mean is not necessarily what is heard. Our words can be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Communicating to be understood requires careful thought about the environment (e..g, speaking louder in a noisy room) and the listener (e.g., using the right tone and clear language). Knowing the listener is important. For instance, if the listener is a musician, then musical examples may convey a concept effectively. Feedback is important to gauge understanding. A head nod of agreement versus a quizzical look from the listener can help direct the next stage of the conversation.

Similarly for communication that is not in person, what we mean is not necessarily what is heard. Communicating to be understood requires careful choice of medium. My work colleagues have distinct preferences for communication mediums. Some prefer e-mail, others want a video call, and others like instant messaging. 

Once a medium is selected, creative use of that medium can enhance understanding. For instance, in a video call, if the discussion refers to a website with a long URL, pasting the URL in the chat can help ensure listeners can follow along. Listeners without their own video feeds can give feedback to the speaker through the use of reactions that are displayed as the visual equivalent of a head nod in agreement.

When we choose to communicate with tech, we ought to thoughtfully consider its limitations and address them where we can. When we are able to achieve effective and affective communication despite the limitations, we can then achieve some noble and God-honoring ends, such as those the final two principles suggest.

Principle 3: Use tech to communicate with respect and convey worth

It is not always better to choose live, in-person communication. Business meetings that simply convey information with no interaction and little flair are often so boring that they show a lack of respect for those that were forced to attend. That meeting truly should have been an email. Similarly, too much information in one verbal deluge might be difficult to process or remember. Putting it in writing will convey the meaning better and sustain the impact longer.

Sometimes live, real-time communication is preferred, but not absolutely. For example, when there is a death in the family, the caring medium to communicate this somber news to close relatives is in person. However, if you cannot get immediately in touch, time is of the essence. Making a phone call is better than leaving them without knowing. If they don’t pick up, then leaving a voicemail or sending an email may be better than waiting too long. These choices hinge on respect – those impacted the most should hear important news first. Important family news should be shared first with the immediate family, Likewise, important business reorganizations should be shared first with those that are being shuffled in the new organization. The need for promptness influences the medium we select for the message. Respect for the message recipient may require us to balance intimacy and immediacy.

The spiritual practices and sacraments mentioned earlier are best done in person, but in extraordinary circumstances, technology may allow those practices to continue when doing so in person is not possible. Illness may prevent individuals from gathering. When I have the flu, I show respect and care for my fellow believers by staying home from Sunday services and watching online instead. War or pandemics may prevent entire communities from gathering. COVID caused many congregations to temporarily meet online. A blizzard on Christmas weekend caused my church to cancel services in person, proceeding online instead.

Tech gadgets help parents stay in touch with children who are studying or working in distant locations. They help spouses connect when one is away on a business trip or called to active military service. They help siblings catch up on each other’s lives when living in different states. Even when they are far away, staying in touch with loved ones and friends may take precedence over strangers nearby. Sitting outside during lunch break, you might forgo a conversation with a person you don’t know who is sitting across the walk. Why? To make a check-in call with your wife to see how an important event that morning went for her.  While having family dinner, you might respond to an urgent text from your best friend, temporarily stepping away from those present in the room. Rather than attending a local sporting event, you might choose to watch your granddaughter's soccer game in another state, watching via Facetime. 

Thoughtful choice of communication medium demonstrates caring and respect. Before unthinkingly selecting your habitual means to communicate, take a moment to consider the message and the audience, then choose your medium wisely. One particularly meaningful demonstration of respect is when technology also enables others to flourish in their communication, which is the focus of the final principle.

Principle 4: Use tech to give people a voice

New means of communication can provide new opportunities. Although e-mail is now old, and Facebook is no longer new, consider what a director at Intel Corp. observed as each technology became prevalent:  “I have so many stories of people reflecting on the ways technology gave their parents voices they didn’t know they had. I remember years ago, people -- mostly 20-,30-, and even 40-somethings -- reflecting on the fact that when e-mail and text-messaging came along, they suddenly heard their father in a way he’d never been before. It gave a generation of taciturn men a way to have affective relationships across their families. I still hear that about the way people are connecting on Facebook.”  (Genevieve Bell, Director of Interaction and Experience Research for Intel Corporation, in an interview with Alexis Marigal in “What Makes Her Click,” The Atlantic, December 2012, p. 42.)  Bell noticed that technology gave a voice – a means of expression – to family men that they didn’t have previously. 

Giving someone a voice means granting them access and the means to participate. Technology can be a tool to give voice to the oppressed and disenfranchised. Tech can enable us to hear the plight of the hungry, destitute, or war-torn. Technology can give voice to professionals whose company cannot afford the travel expense to send them to a conference in person – if the conference provides a virtual option, they can now share their insights with other experts in their field. 

I have experienced this gaining of voice personally. I had early onset loss of hearing, starting before I was 40. I figuratively lost my voice as well as my hearing.  When I could not distinguish what other speakers were saying, I could not participate in the discussion. The technology of hearing aids remediated my hearing to a large degree, giving back my ability to participate in conversations – giving me back my voice.

However, the technology is not perfect. Even with hearing aids, I can have trouble distinguishing the words of a soft-spoken person on the other side of a room. When I served as an elder on my church council, there was another elder who was very quiet, but often spoke with great insight during meetings. I intentionally would find a seat near him to be sure I could hear his words during the meeting. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only quiet voice, and sometimes the HVAC or other peripheral noises would make even loud voices hard to make out. Keeping up with the discussion was mentally exhausting and could be frustrating at times. When COVID hit, our council moved to web-based video conferences. Suddenly I could hear every speaker! With each person sitting in front of a microphone and with my own volume control, I could finally hear every person, even the quiet ones. 

Just as children in school have different learning styles and just as children and adults have diverse talents for expression, we all have different communication styles and needs. When done well, technology can help level the playing field so that all can participate and all have a voice.


In high school, my shop teacher would tell us “choose the right tool for the job.”  Although he was referring to the power woodworking tools we were about to employ, his insight applies to tools for communication just as well. For each message and in each conversation, choose the means of communication that best loves your neighbor and honors God. Choose tools not for self-aggrandizement, but for how well they enable respect of others, by whether the tool grants them a voice and enables us to truly hear the heart of the matter from their perspective.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Technological Honesty

My smartphone is lying to me again. I’m walking around downtown Minneapolis looking for dinner after a conference. My maps app is telling me to continue northeast on Marquette and then turn left at 6th Street. But I’m not on Marquette. I’m a block over. I’m the victim of a well- known problem:  urban canyons can foil GPS navigation, fooling us with false location information. 

Technically, the app wasn’t lying with a false location.  If I zoom out a bit, I see a faint blue circle around my location. The center dot is the best estimate of my location, but the wider blue circle represents the tolerance of the available data. My displayed location is dependent on the number of GPS satellite signals currently received, though my phone tries to be a bit smarter and also uses available cellular and WiFi data to refine the location estimate. It turns out that my actual location on 2nd Avenue is within the larger blue circle. Thus, although the walking directions are based on the false location, I can quickly orient myself and keep going. A short time later my displayed location updates, jumping over a block to show me on 2nd, tracking me very accurately in real-time for the rest of my journey.

Back at home from my trip, as I am writing this blog, I check my location while sitting at my desk in my home office. Compared to the moving target I presented in Minneapolis among buildings that interfered with the GPS, as a stationary target here in the suburbs of Grand Rapids I should be easier to find. But again the location is not quite right – the app thinks I am sitting in the backyard. At least it knows my car is really parked in the garage.  Honesty is a key virtue for Christians to pursue. In this article I first identify the definition and some nuances about honesty, then turn to how technology can aid our honesty or spur us towards dishonesty.

Defining Honest

Merriam-Webster defines the word honest as “legitimate, truthful, free from fraud or deception.” Two of the most respected American presidents are revered largely because of this virtuous characteristic. The honesty of the first American President, George Washington was also renowned, particularly the mythical story of the young George chopping down his father’s cherry tree, but then confessing to the crime later, announcing that he could not lie about it. The truthfulness of the sixteenth American President “Honest Abe” Lincoln was also widely reported. 

Honest statements are not only true but also sufficiently accurate and complete so that the statement does not intentionally mislead. If the listener was unintentionally misled, then at the first sign of confusion, the speaker is obligated to correct the misinterpretation. If one feels the need to justify one’s statement as “technically true” then it was probably misleading and was thus dishonest.

Dishonesty with ourselves is self-deception corrected only when we are truthful with ourselves. Certain truths are unpleasant or even repulsive. In the face of these, I might cope through mental self-defense mechanisms. I might ignore certain information that would detract from my preferred narrative. I might push certain facts into my subconscious. For example, we may need to face the music on our spending habits when deep down we recognize that our expenses are higher than our income. Overcoming self-deception is similar to the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, guilt and depression, and finally acceptance.

Lack of truth can certainly be harmful, but before turning to technological honesty, let’s also briefly look at how truth can be used as a weapon. I can use honesty as a cover for cruelty. Choosing to share a brutal truth, without regard to kindness, is spiteful and hard-hearted. This is particularly true if my opinion was not solicited, Even when asked, I ought to choose my words with care. If I point out an error in spite, rather than in love, I may be hurting more than correcting. If I pronounce judgment on someone’s worth, looks, or ability, my words become stones cast to injure through degradation. Cruel honesty is no virtue. 

Likewise, sharing information that does not belong to me does not count as honesty. Such an act is theft if I am stealing intellectual property. If I am threatening to share this information unless compensated, it is blackmail.  

But what does honesty have to do with technology? Quite a bit, it turns out.

Tech Keeping Us Honesty

Many technological tools are quite reliable. This trait can promote honesty in the users of those tools in at least two ways. First, technology provides a written record of our commitments. We can find such technological tools in some of the earliest uses of writing to document a contractual arrangement. For example, the Sumerian contract  shown in the figure is written in cuneiform on a clay tablet dating around  2600 B.C., recording the sale of a house and field. Modern technology provides additional instruments to document our promises. My Apple Watch reminds me I need to walk a bit more today to hit my exercise goal. Blockchain algorithms are used to authenticate and record a Bitcoin transaction.

A second way technology promotes honesty in users is through error detection. Some tools detect dishonesty in others. A polygraph monitors physiological indicators to signal when a person is likely telling a lie. A police radar gun detects when motorists are speeding. In 1986, a radiation detector in Sweden alerted the world to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Some tools help us to be honest with ourselves. If I commit to exercising to keep my blood pressure down, a home blood pressure monitor helps me track whether I am sticking to my commitment. The lane departure warning on my car alerts me when my vehicle strays, probably because my attention was straying. A grammar checker helps me detect errors in my writing. But not all tools are aids to correction. Some are designed to deceive.

Less than Honest with our Tech Tools

Preying on our trust in devices as reliable, some technological inventions have been designed for deceit, aiding and abetting our dishonesty. Deep fake videos take advantage of our trust in the reliability of technology, fooling us into falsely believing a famous person said or did something. Counterfeit money is designed to look just like the real thing, enabling theft through dishonesty.

Ironically, while we might be duped because we trust technology too easily, at the same time we might try to fool others through the common experience of tech breakdown. We might lie about a phone battery dying to get out of awkward conversations. We might claim an email never arrived to excuse missing a deadline. We might paint an overly glamorous picture of our lives by carefully curating a social media persona that glosses over any blemish.

Technology that enables deceit is contemptible, but using technology in the name of honesty in order to harm is equally reprehensible. How often do we see replies and comments on social media that someone claims to be posting in the pursuit of truth, but really are meant to insult and hurtfully criticize? Cruel honesty using technology is no virtue. Similarly, publicly announcing a security flaw in a widely used product without giving the vendor a reasonable chance to first correct the problem is an intentional act of sabotage, done for the thrill or notoriety, without a care for the company or for their users. Such cruel exposure of truth is no virtue.


Christians with influence over technology should work towards designing products that promote honesty in two ways. First, the design itself should be open and clear to be sure users understand how it works, how reliable it is, and how safe it is. Second, the product should be designed with characteristics that promote honesty in the user and avoid enabling deceptive practices.

For those that have less influence over technology design, we still make choices as consumers. As tech users, we ought to be thoughtful about the biases our tools might have, discerning carefully what to buy and how to use it with integrity. Furthermore, our individual buying decisions accumulate into market forces that drive the direction of future design. We implicitly vote for the technology we want tomorrow by what we purchase today. Let us buy and use our tools wisely. 


Saturday, May 14, 2022

Brain vs. Brawn

Mind over matter. 


Life of the mind. 

Brain versus brawn.

Injurymap, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Common phrases like this emphasize how much our culture venerates the intellectual. Going all the way back to Greek philosophers, we are led to believe that the purest morality is attained when one focuses on the mind and thought, putting aside the body and corporeal desires. 

However, if the mind is godly and good while the body is worldly and evil, then why wouldn’t God have just created us as spirits?  Instead, he created us as physical beings with mass and inertia, with blood and muscle. If the ancient Greeks were right -- the production of knowledge with our mind alone is good, while the production of things using our hands is the least noble -- then why would God place us bodily in a creation full of physical things and put us in charge of this physical creation? 

Pearson Scott Foresman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Christians can get caught up in a Hellenistic way of thinking, mistaking a focus on the mind for a focus on the spirit. But our soul is not synonymous with our brain. Furthermore, our core identity is not purely spirit. After all, Christians worldwide profess to believe in the physical incarnation of Jesus Christ and his bodily resurrection, and further, put our hope in our own future resurrection of the body.

We might still elevate the mind above the body when it comes to morality and pursuing virtue. However, thinking alone does not imply virtue unless it is accompanied by action. Thinking about embracing my spouse is not the same as the actual physical act. Thinking about serving my neighbor is not the same as actually filling their needs by offering physical aid in the flesh. 

Some temptations have their root in physical desires such as gluttony driven by culinary hunger or lust driven by sexual hunger. However, not all temptation is solely of the body. Pure thought is not always pure: our mind alone can drive sins of pride and gluttony. Sin does not taint our body alone but taints our minds as well.

Giving physical embodiment its due is important for engineers, scientists, and all of us involved in technology either as a career or hobby. Technology is the work of our hands as much as of our minds. It is the physical embodiment of our volition. It is our will incarnate. 

Philosopher Nicholas P. Wolterstorff underlined the importance of equal respect for both mind and body:   “The Protestant Reformation, and, in particular, the Calvinist branch thereof, represents a radical rejection of this scale of values in which the life of the mind is elevated over that of the citizen, in which both modes of life are elevated over ordinary life, and in which the work of our hands is regarded as having no more than instrumental value.“  Wolterstorff allowed no sacred-secular split: “ was these [production and reproduction aspects of ordinary life] that the Reformers, for the first time in the history of the West, bestowed with inherent and not just instrumental worth -- provided they were done to the glory of God and the good of the commonwealth.” (Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, “Should the Work of Our Hands Have Standing in the Christian College,” in Keeping Faith: Embracing the Tensions in Christian Higher Education, ed. Ronald A. Wells, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996)

All careers have inherent value. Both the technologist and the teacher, both the machinist and the mentalist, both the physician and the philosopher have inherent worth. All vocations are sacred. All are callings from God. As such, they all deserve respect. 

At the same time, all of these careers and vocations deserve careful consideration so that they live up to their high calling. After praising the ordinary work of our hands, Wolterstorff also calls us to responsibility. It is not sufficient to rest on our laurels of inherent worth. “One serves God and humanity in one’s daily occupation....But one does not serve God and humanity by going into business and then just playing the received role of businessmen, nor by going into medicine and then just playing the received role of physician, nor by going into the academy and then just playing the received role of the academic. For those received roles are religiously fallen -- not fallen through and through, but nonetheless fallen. To serve God faithfully and to serve humanity effectively, one has to critique the received role and do what one can to alter the script.”  

Christians working in technology must consider the purpose of technology.  For what purpose do engineers develop new technological products? How is our work impacted by sin; how are our technological devices impacted by sin? How then should we work as redemptive agents in the domain of engineering? We answer these big questions In part by recognizing the impact of sin and working against it. We answer them in part by directing our technology design efforts to honor God and love our neighbor, as a Good Samaritan. In all cases, we answer not only the thoughts of our mind but with the tangible actions of our hands.

Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Go Big or Go Home

ationaal Archief, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

As a kid, I loved getting the Scholastic book catalogs. Several times a year, our teacher would hand them out, asking us to return book orders by the next week. I was an avid reader but my parents were not wealthy. I could order books, but was always given a modest limit. I would carefully look through the catalog, calculating how best to spend the money. Occasionally I would blow my entire budget on one large book, and that book was often the Guinness Book of World Records

The book was the largest in the catalog, offering hundreds of pages. I spent hours pouring over the lines of fine-print pages discovering the world’s largest ball of string, the world’s tallest skyscraper, the world’s heaviest twins, the record for the longest fingernails, the fastest human, the tallest human, and more. There were records for all kinds of interesting and crazy things. 

Towpilot, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
When I was growing up in the midwest United States, we took a family trip where I got to see the tallest building in the world. It was the Sears tower in Chicago, at 108 stories and 442 meters in height. That building is now called the Willis tower; today it ranks as the 23rd tallest building on earth. The tallest as of this writing is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at 163 stories and 828 meters in height.

Why are we so fascinated with the largest, fastest, or heaviest? In his blog titled “Hubris”, Tim Fernholz reviews a study by the Danish researcher Bent Flyvbjerg that explores monumental engineering endeavors, concluding that projects costing more than $1 billion almost always go over budget. Flyvbjerg goes on to identify four reasons society pursues large projects even though they cost so much.

  • technological: engineers enjoy building the newest or largest item of its kind
  • political: big public works can enhance the reputation and stature of a politician
  • economic: big projects mean lots of business for construction companies
  • aesthetic:large projects often have a certain artistic appeal

These reasons are good initial explanations for why society pursues massive engineering projects despite their huge costs, costs that almost always surpass expectations. However, they are all superficial symptoms of an underlying cause. The deeper reason is implied by the blog title that Fernholz uses,  “Hubris,” impling that these reasons boil down to the age-old vice of pride. 

Jaidyn345, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

We are familiar with stories of pride as a significant driver for big projects. Your neighbors that vie to build the largest, boldest Christmas display on the street are often driven by a measure of conceit. Pride at a national level was at stake for Americans in the 1950s. They woke up one morning to learn that the USSR had succeeded in launching Sputnik into orbit: the world’s first artificial satellite. This event drove a wave of scientific and technological development in the US, culminating with the massive engineering project to put the first human on the moon. 

Fernholz also mentions the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel as the paradigmatic symbol of big projects that failed. One of my colleagues at Calvin, professor Gayle Ermer, examines this story in a paper at the 2008 Christian Engineering Education Conference, titled “Lessons from the Tower of Babel”. Considering the tale of Babel, she says “The implication could be drawn from this interpretation that Christians should not be investing a great deal of time and effort in technological accomplishments on a grand scale. While it may be true that over-reliance on technological achievements can detract from trust in God, it is questionable whether this is the primary lesson of the Babel story. “ She goes on to describe a God-honoring approach to technology that does not depend on the size and scale of the technology, but more so on its direction. 

I suspect that big technological projects are often driven by pride, steering the project from the start in a direction that is not God-honoring. However, even if pride drove the initial dream of the big project, that should not prevent Christian engineers from redirecting that purpose so that the project itself is God-honoring. 

Furthermore, pride is not the only reason for pursuing a big technological project. In the name of stewardship of resources, we might seek economies of scale, such as building large wind turbines instead of smaller ones. In pursuing a calling to develop and unfold God’s creation, we might build big. Competition might drive a big project, not because of pride, but in order for a company to survive. Engineers might view a large project as pursuit of their spiritual calling, following Colossians 3:17 “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Should Christians participate in big technology projects? I believe so. However, we should do so with a discerning spirit and a keen sensitivity to avoid pride, working to design and build in a way that honors God and loves our neighbor.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Broken Christmas Toys

They could make toys better. They could make them stronger, less prone to wear and damage. They could make them safer, with fewer dangerous small parts and fewer toxic materials. They could perform more comprehensive testing. They could make toys better. But they don’t.

Christmas Presents

Once they have a few Christmas seasons under their belt, most kids learn to politely glance at a card or briefly hold up new clothes they have received to show a modicum of appreciation. Most kids also cannot help but show their true enthusiasm when pulling back the first corner of wrapping paper reveals a toy. The toys immediately become beloved and cherished gifts from the first moment they are revealed. Cards and clothes get stacked in a pile; toys are immediately put to work. The American Girl doll joins a tea party. The bright red Hot Wheels Ferrari races across the floor in the kitchen between the feet of the adults preparing a meal. The watch is strapped to the wrist, where it remains for a solid week. 

Toys Break Easily

When my children were young, it was not unusual during the days and weeks after Christmas for toys to break. Some toys needed repair within minutes of unwrapping, while others lasted many days. A few sturdy stalwarts lasted long enough to be handed down to a sibling. Why weren’t all the toys made that sturdy?  Why were some made of flimsy materials that easily broke in the hands of an industrious four-year-old?  

Toy designers and manufacturers have a choice. They could make better toys. They do not because we told them so. Not in so many words, but the result was the same. We consumers often choose lower price over higher quality. 

Imagine a toy seller who produces two models of the same toy. The first model is made of inexpensive materials, with little attention to durability. Costs are reduced further by slimming down the thickness of each part and minimizing the number of fasteners by using an inexpensive sealing process. The result is a fragile toy that is not easily repairable. The second model is made to last, with high-quality materials. The designer pays attention to likely wear patterns and beefs up the sections where weakness might otherwise lead to breakage. More expensive fasteners are used, enabling the toy to be repaired should any problems occur. 

Despite the contrasting designs, from the outside, the two toys appear somewhat similar. A Christmas shopper in a hurry would not spot the higher quality of the second toy. The only clear and immediately obvious difference is the price. Although a few astute shoppers may notice the difference simply by the heft of the toy, and others may assume that the higher price toy is indeed better, the majority choose the lower cost.

Towards the end of the shopping season, the first model has sold out, yet stacks of the second remain. The implications to the toymaker for next year are clear:  make low-cost toys, even if the quality is poor. 

Why don’t they make toys better?  It isn’t some insidious toy conspiracy. It is because we consumers won’t pay for the higher quality. You get what you pay for. We choose to pay little, so we get little. Our economy generates a huge data set characterizing consumer product preferences. Those purchases tilt the test data heavily toward cheaper. We might intend “cheaper” to be less expensive, but in essence, we have selected “cheaper” In terms of lower quality. You get what you pay for.

Communicating Quality

Whether the product is a toy, microwave, phone, or table, the consumer drives much of the market signal for lower quality.  However, the engineer, manufacturer, marketer, and retailer are not absolved of responsibility in the drive towards lower quality. To choose higher quality, reliability, and safety, the consumer must be able to identify those qualities accurately and quantify them to a reasonable degree. Clear and consistent product communication is not easy to obtain across an industry. However, we have an existing example of strong communication in one particular product industry: packaged food.

In 1990, the US Congress passed the “Nutrition Labeling and Education Act” requiring food products to be labeled with accurate identification of ingredients. The European Union passed similar requirements in 2016. Consistent labels quantifying nutrition enabled consumers to make fair comparisons between foods so that they could purchase the best value for their money. Over time, this information has driven the market so that lower fat, lower sugar, higher nutrition became more common and thus more affordable. It is not a perfect system. We still see unfortunate economic pressures that limit the very poor to rather unhealthy food choices. Nevertheless, accurate labeling has improved the overall food production system.  

We should apply the lesson of food labeling to technological products in general. Christians should be particularly eager to improve the way product information communicates safety and reliability because such information is a way to love and care for our neighbor. Christian engineers in a position to influence regulation can advocate for better consumer choice.

Furthermore, regulation is not the only way to improve communication of a product’s quality, reliability, safety, utility.  Reviews can help. Customer reviews are a good start, though they rarely provide a direct comparison of alternatives. Review articles by qualified people or organizations are better, as they often benchmark similar products head-to-head. 

Every Technological Design Requires Trade-offs

Toys are not the only technological products that require give-and-take design choices. Every physical device we design and manufacture requires a trade-off between cost and reliability. Extra design time to develop clever products that last longer implicitly adds cost. Extra or better materials to make structures stronger implicitly add cost.  Furthermore, balancing cost and reliability is just one trade-off. Trade-offs are implicit in every engineering design, requiring an equilibrium between multiple goals that each appear to be good, yet more of the one requires less of the other. 

Most designs will require an array of trade-offs. We trade weight (and indirectly safety) for higher gas mileage in automobiles. We trade early access for thoroughness of clinical testing in developing pharmaceutical drugs. We determine priorities for the competing goods of aesthetics, performance, reliability, safety, recyclability, and more. 

Of all these trade-offs, it may seem that safety should always be the top priority, tipping the scales all the way to complete reliability.

Trading Safety

I once asked students in an engineering course to consider how much rigor one ought to use in designing electronics for an entertainment device such as earbuds. I then asked them to compare that to the rigor one ought to use in designing a medical instrument such as a device to monitor premature infant vital signs. 

Some students thought there should be no difference in rigor. They thought that Christians should do their best to produce the most excellent and safe designs, regardless of the intended use. This position has some scriptural support. Colossians 3:23 tells us  “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”  No matter where we find ourselves, every occupation is worthy of our best efforts as an offering to the Lord. 

Other students indicated that the preemie monitor should be designed with utmost care and much more attention, compared to the earbuds. This position also has some scriptural support. Philippians 4:8 tells us  “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  Spending more time on a more noble technology is one way to implement Paul’s directive. 

Can you go overboard on safety?  Is there ever an acceptable risk?  I believe so. Consider two examples. First, look at the common nail hammer. It is designed to pound nails into wood. This purpose leads to a design with a hard striking surface, a relatively heavy weight to provide momentum when the striking surface is swung, and a long handle to harness the centrifugal force of that swing into a powerful impact on the head of the nail. The design is appropriate to the need. The design is also deadly. That same powerful impact on a person’s head will kill. We could alleviate that risk by reducing the weight and softening the striking surface, shortening the handle to reduce the swinging force, and so forth. The resulting pillow on a stubby stick would no longer be able to kill, but it wouldn’t be able to pound nails either. 

A second example is choosing the acceptable risk in automobiles. We could make cars safer by adding steel plating to protect passengers during a crash. However, the extra weight drastically lowers gas mileage. We could make cars even more robust during accidents by eliminating fragile windows. However, the lack of visibility would make driving much less enjoyable and might well increase the chance of accidents. Eventually, as we added more and more bulk, the car would no longer fit in the lane or in a residential garage. All the extra material would push the price of the safer automobile beyond the reach of most budgets. 

Balancing Act

Good designs are a balance of competing goals. If the balance is distorted, favoring one goal to the exclusion of others, the resulting product may be dysfunctional. Proper function depends on meeting multiple goals simultaneously. 

Not only are products the result of a trade-off, but the engineering design process itself is also a trade-off. The old adage “better, faster, cheaper -- pick any two” is a reflection of the balance between the scope, schedule, and cost of a project. Does this mean that one must always accept less of one goal to achieve more of another?  Not necessarily. Sometimes we find a clever new way to achieve both lower cost and higher quality, e.g., by reducing waste. Sometimes we find an innovation that lets us achieve both environmental stewardship and corporate profit, e.g., by reusing and recycling. Sometimes we find a way to make a part both lighter and stronger, e.g., by using composite materials. Such wise combinations are one way to pursue designs that are excellent and praiseworthy.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Running with Scissors

Super Power


Some superheroes were born with amazing abilities. Superman was born on Krypton, but upon arriving on earth, that birthright gave him superhuman strength, X-ray vision, and the ability to fly. Wonder Woman was born an Amazon warrior with phenomenal speed and strength. Other superheroes had ordinary births but gained extraordinary abilities through accidents. Peter Parker became Spider-man through a spider bite. Bruce Banner became the Incredible Hulk after an accidental overexposure to gamma rays. However, there is one other type of superhero that inspired young comic book readers: the self-made superhero. Bruce Wayne became Batman, gaining phenomenal abilities through his high-tech gadgets. Tony Stark became Iron Man, gaining super strength and the ability to fly through his specially designed exoskeleton.

We ordinary humans can relate to the self-made superhero. We are all susceptible to the lure of technology because it is a powerful amplifier of abilities. We see further with a telescope. We pound harder with a hammer. We cut faster with a circular saw. We compute faster with a calculator. Technology has become central to our modern world because it has been helpful, but also because it makes us powerful.

Super Danger

Technology can be a helpful power amplifier -- but don’t go too fast with it or you could get hurt. Hurrying to finish up an important document, have you ever neglected to save it and then lost everything when the computer crashed?  Ever pounded your thumb instead of the nail?  Ever sent a rather sensitive email to a large group that you intended for just one individual?  

Pressure washer

We all have experienced technology’s power gone awry. A few years ago we rented a power washer to clean off a few things around our yard, intending to spiff up the deck, a brick patio area, the front sidewalk, and so forth. Some of the dirt, grit, and moss that collected over time looked like it might be rather stubborn, so we opted for one of the more gas-powered units with a higher pressure. While we were working through our list of items to clean, my wife washed off a few tools. She held them in one hand and sprayed them off with the other. The concentrated washer spray caught just a small area of the top of her hand, which stung so briefly she hardly noticed. Later, we saw that it had caused a significant bruise and damage to her skin. That pressurized water was a powerful tool that took its toll before she had a chance to react. 

The summer before the power washer incident, we were camping at a state park. While sitting around the campfire in the late afternoon, we watched a pickup truck roll past with the characteristic low rumble of a diesel engine, towing a large fifth-wheel camper. The driver stopped to let out the rest of the family so that they could direct. He then angled to back the camper into the lot while his family called out directions to ensure he didn’t back into a tree. Suddenly a loud pop cracked through the air. As the pickup had sharply turned, the front corner of the camper had pushed into and then through the back window of the pickup. Fortunately, the safety glass broke with a pop but without shattering. That pickup truck was a powerful tool that took its toll before anyone had a chance to realize the danger.


We’ve always known at some level that we must be careful with technology. When we were young, our mothers scolded us about running with scissors --  if we stumbled, the sharp points could suddenly become unintentional and perhaps even deadly weapons. Our heavenly parent also instructs us to be careful with our technology, such as our house and our possessions.

“When you build a new house, make a parapet [low guard wall] around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” (Deuteronomy 22:8)

“If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death.” (Exodus 21:28-29)

Running with scissors -- going too fast -- is often our problem with technology. Perhaps we are going a bit too fast when the convenience of electronic purchases lulls us into permitting companies to retain our credit card number in a centralized database. It is convenient for us if our store already knows our numbers. It is also a convenient one-stop shopping store for cyber-thieves. Perhaps we are running too fast when we let young people start driving before their brains have fully developed, before their reflexes have fully matured, before their judgment and risk-assessment abilities have grown sufficiently. Perhaps we are running too fast when we use genetically modified foods. Have we taken enough time to evaluate the long-term health effects of a diet of foods that have had their DNA jumbled?  Perhaps we are running too fast with our rapid consumption of energy generated by fossil fuels, not recognizing the impact on the atmosphere until it has become quite significant -- or even past the point of no return. 

Slowing Down

Scissors can be beneficial, but they can also turn deadly if we run with them and stumble.

Many philosophers of technology have surveyed the dangers of gadgets that get out of control, concluding that we need to use a “go it slow” approach. They have advocated a “no-unless” precautionary principle. That is, we should say no to a new technology unless we have assessed the risks and have high confidence that it is safe. Let’s consider two examples: airplanes and trains 

Jetliner taking off.

Writing good software takes time. Writing safe software takes even more time. A modern commercial jet airliner has a variety of computer processors running software from the mundane (such as graphical controls for passenger entertainment systems) to the safety-critical, such as flight control systems. Any software related to the safety of flight goes through a rigorous process of assurance before the plane is certified for flight. This extra rigor can add a factor of 10x to the time to produce and test such software, with a similar increase in cost as well. As a society, we judge this cost and time to be worth the benefit of higher confidence in the safety of aircraft.

Recently the Metro subway system in Washington D.C. significantly reduced service as a precaution. The previous week, an investigation of a derailment incident on the blue line determined that a contributing cause was an axle that was out of compliance. To be safe, all the trains with similar axles (about 60% of the fleet) were taken out of service. The service disruption was significant, but it was prudent to protect public safety.

Humans do not foresee all consequences because we have finite abilities. We have limited mental capacity that can cloud our perception of how complex technological devices might fail in the future. We have limited imagination to anticipate the ill uses to which others might turn with our inventions.

Humans are not only finite but also fallen. We are affected by the taint of sin, and our powerful technology shows those effects. Sin is not only external but also stains us internally. “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  (Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago)  

Precaution is warranted because we are finite (by God’s design) and fallen (by Adam’s choice). Taking proper precautions means taking the time to evaluate a technological device carefully before fielding it for public use. Because humans often miss some of the consequences of our technology until it is too late, the more powerful the tool, the more careful we ought to be. 

Slower is better. 

How Slow Can You Go?

How slow is prudent? Occasionally there may be drawbacks if we go too slow.

Occasionally, excessive precaution may cause more harm. In some situations, we cannot afford to wait. We may not be able to wait to completely test a technology that will prevent an existing or imminent harm. While precaution ensures the cure is not worse than the disease, there is also urgency to cure the disease before it kills the patient. Racing the disease may literally be the case. If we take too much time deciding whether to bring a drug to market, some dying patients may be prevented from receiving the only effective medicine that could cure them before the disease kills them. Racing the disease may figuratively be the case. For example, even though we may not fully understand the environmental cost of large batteries in electric vehicles, waiting for longitudinal studies over decades while burning fossil fuels may put us past a climate tipping point.

Occasionally, excessive precaution may cause competitive harm. Even if we -- as individuals, as companies, or nations -- refrain from developing certain technology, someone else will invent it. Those that delay are left at a  disadvantage. Those that forge ahead do not necessarily throw caution to the wind. They may be rightly pursuing better efficiency, creativity, and freedom. They may rightly chafe at overly-cautious regulation. It takes true wisdom to discern what level of risk is warranted.

Fallout Shelter Sign

Finally, while there may be times we should not go too slow, for the most powerful technologies the best choice may be to stop altogether. The more powerful we anticipate a new technology will be, the more cautiously and slowly we should proceed -- if we proceed at all. Our finite capacity to anticipate all possible outcomes leaves us vulnerable to the impact of unforeseen consequences, perhaps at a level that we should not accept. Our fallen nature should make us question whether anyone or any institution can be trusted with truly staggering power. When we get the idea of very powerful technologies, it is prudent to seek universally agreed precautions. International treaties about such things are not bullet-proof, but history shows imperfect agreements have been at least partially successful in slowing nuclear proliferation, delaying human cloning experiments, and banning many chemical and biological weapons.

Choosing Less Power

In a world that dreams of superheroes, it is difficult to resist the lure of ever more powerful devices. Yet we can resist. After the incident with the pressure washer, when we later purchased our own device to avoid an annual rental, we chose an electric-powered washer with somewhat less power. It still does the job we need but reduces the danger. 

Too much power can also be a spiritual danger. Power can lead to pride and arrogance which can then lead to cruelty and corruption. As Christ followers, we should go the other way. We should give up power and put aside selfish desires. With John the Baptist, we should say that Christ “must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30)

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Predicting the Ending

 Surprise Endings are Good

Don’t tell me how it ends! We love the surprise of an unpredictable turn in the story. I won’t spoil it for you, but you know what I mean about mind-blowing plot twists in films like Arrival (2016) and The Sixth Sense (1999). Novels and movies with predictable endings are less dramatic and less memorable. 

My wife and I have watched some excellent television series, some of which run for many seasons. One of the genres we binge-watch is the crime-solving type -- especially when the series provides in-depth character development so that we grow to love the personality and quirks of the investigators. We often watch the program on Netflix well after it has aired on live television. Watching shows later has advantages. You can check reviews to ensure the series ran multiple seasons and was highly rated. The disadvantage is the risk of coming across a spoiler that gives away a plot twist.

We were a few seasons into watching a particularly good series -- far enough that we had come to know and love the main characters. One day my wife was having lunch with her talkative mother and mentioned this series. My mother-in-law then blurted out, “oh, is that the one where Detective X’s wife is killed?”  We were not up to that season. We didn’t know. We could never have predicted the writers would kill off this character. To her credit, my wife kept this particularly heart-wrenching twist to herself as we continued watching. She only told me that her mom had given away a crucial plot twist, but she didn’t divulge any further details. We didn’t reach that gut-wrenching episode until much later. It was only then that my wife pointed out the unexpected twist that her mother had given away previously.

Television crime series are not the only entertainment with unpredictable twists. In the 1980s, a popular children’s book series called “Choose Your Own Adventure” invited the reader to make a choice at the end of every couple of pages. Each decision sent them to a page number in a different part of the book, where the story would continue based on their choice. After a few more pages, another choice would be presented and the story would again fork into different paths. Eventually, the selected story path would reach a conclusion, sometimes a happy ending of the protagonist, and sometimes an unfortunate end. It was usually difficult to anticipate the consequences of the early choices to choose the path to the happy ending. 

An early computer game, The Oregon Trail, was similarly challenging. Originally text-based, many of the choices one made would result in progress for your frontier party to make its way to Oregon. However, the game could end short of that goal somewhat unpredictably. You could take an innocent drink from a cool stream and fall ill from dysentery. You could suddenly get bitten by a colorful snake and die of poisonous venom. 

Fictional stories are more dramatic and compelling with some good plot twists, however, as a society, we prefer stability and reliability.

Rogers Commission into the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger, Public domain, via Wikimedia CommonsSurprise Endings are Bad

We generally do not like surprises from our tools, since unexpected behavior usually indicates a failure. Technological products that fail often result in disgruntled customers demanding refunds and posting unfavorable reviews. Technological product failures that harm people or property often result in lawsuits and unfavorable publicity. However, while engineers can prepare for some potential issues, it is impossible to anticipate every possible situation.

On January 28, 1986, I was a student driving home after a class at Calvin College when I heard it on the radio. The space shuttle Challenger had exploded. In the coming hours, we learned that the seven astronauts aboard the spacecraft had been killed. In the coming months, it became clear that O-rings on the booster rockets were not sufficiently reliable at the cold temperatures of that launch morning. Their failure resulted in the infamous explosion. (The figure on the right shows a diagram locating the O-rings within the booster system.)

On September 11, 2001, I was an engineering professor preparing for my next lecture when I got a call to turn on the television. The Twin Towers had been struck. In the hours that followed, I watched in horror along with millions of others, gasping as one tower and then the other collapsed, killing thousands. In the coming months, it became clear that the towers withstood the initial shock of an aircraft strike. However, the intense heat of flames fed by jet fuel caused the steel structure of the building to fail, resulting in the horrific collapse of both towers.

Technological failure is a surprise ending that engineers work hard to avoid. Engineers are called to hold public safety as the paramount goal in their design work. Ensuring that a technological product is safe requires sufficient analysis and testing so that users can be confident the product will not fail under normal use. Users expect it will not fail after repeated use, over a reasonably long time. They even expect it will not fail after abnormal use, at least to some extent. 

The space shuttle O-rings were not meant to operate in frigid temperatures and were only tested down to a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The decision to launch the vehicle outside of its specified operating range was a fateful choice, resulting in catastrophic failure. 

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City were designed according to best practices of the time and thus built to withstand the stresses of extreme weather. The terrorists’ fateful decision to smash into the buildings with fuel-laden aircraft forced the buildings outside of their specified operating conditions, resulting in catastrophic failure. 

Engineers who seek to put their faith into practice should see product safety as paramount, in part because we are commanded to love our neighbor. Whether designing smartphones or space shuttles, whether designing ice scrapers or skyscrapers, engineers have a responsibility to ensure their designs are safe. However, the extent of their responsibility is not infinite. Engineers must anticipate and design against many possible future scenarios, but not to anticipate all possible outcomes and certainly not operating conditions that are reasonably believed to be impossible.

No design is ever completely safe. It is not possible to develop a product that is guaranteed to cause no harm under any condition. At some point, the added effort and cost to improve safety produces diminishing returns. A product must be reasonably safe, even very safe. But there are reasons an engineer might be justified in declining to build in further safety features once a certain threshold is reached. Adding safety features may unacceptably reduce product usability, e.g., enclosing a hammer with rubber foam would prevent many accidental injuries, but the hammer would no longer be functional. Adding safety features may increase the cost of the product beyond what most can afford. Adding safety features is not always a net gain -- in some cases improving safety in one element is a trade-off that reduces safety in a different element of the same system. 

Trade-offs are inherent in engineering design.  Another constraint we face while attempting to design tools with high utility and high safety is the limited availability of resources, including raw materials and energy. Engineers putting faith into practice should also see stewardship of creation as part of their calling.

Even with the smartest designs that anticipate many failure modes, provide safety mechanisms, and are well tested, things can go wrong. Unanticipated consequences can never be fully eliminated. Sometimes the surprise endings are bad.

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? 

Sometimes technology fails us in ways that no one could foresee. Who do we blame when the designer, manufacturer, and maintainer all did their jobs right and yet something still goes wrong? We do not blame, we mourn. We lament our human frailty, our inadequate wisdom, and paltry imagination. Though we are fearfully and wonderfully made, yet we are finite creatures of dust. We are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. We are not God.

Sometimes technology fails us because of corruption, negligence, or malice. When preventable failures cause harm, we can sometimes blame engineers for the foreseeable flaws in their designs. Sometimes the design is correct and robust, but it is manufactured or maintained poorly. We might then blame the manufacturer or the maintenance service for the resulting harm.

We blame, but we also mourn. We lament our human fallenness, the weakness of human flesh. This is not the way it was supposed to be. In the beginning, the creation, including humanity, was good.  It was characterized by shalom, a flourishing peace.  Though we were made good, sin has stained us and all creation.

Our mourning might lead us to despair. Despair might lead us to anger. In our anger, we might reason that while humans might be prone to failure and corruption, God is not. God is ultimately in control. God is good, all-knowing, and all-powerful.  Why, then, does God let evil persist?  

Asking the question is already a hint at the answer. Only a creature granted the gift of free will would be in a position to consider asking. God made humans his last and best creature on the sixth day of his creating. Unlike any other creature, he made humans in his image. Unlike any other creature, he gave Adam and Eve the power to make a moral choice. Of all the fruit-bearing trees in the garden, humans were forbidden from eating food of only one. Our collective fateful choice to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an act of free will. 

God surely knew that we would choose foolishly. God surely knew that all creation would suffer as a result. God surely knew he would sacrifice his only son to redeem the fallen creation. God had the power to prevent all that, yet he chose to make us humans, not robots, even at such a terrible cost. If God could create any number of possible worlds, and he foreknew how each would turn out, why would he choose one that he knew included the fall of humankind? Asking the question is already a hint at the answer. If God determined that man should not sin, then creating a world without the possibility of sin would imply that he did not give humans a true choice. Of all the wondrous aspects of creation, God’s endowment of humans with free will was perhaps his greatest creative act. 

The God-given ability of humans to make a moral choice is truly astounding. Consider how our most advanced Artificial Intelligence is still simply a set of algorithms and state machines that carry out computations according to the rules we dictate. Machines that think can only do what we tell them to do. Any apparent choices they make are simply randomized or purely determined by our program driven by the inputs we provide. I can imagine how to write complex software so that a computer recognizes images better than I can myself. I can imagine that one could construct a computer system that plays chess better than a grandmaster or a system that gives a more accurate analysis of medical conditions than a human medical expert. Computers can be designed to do many things. But I cannot imagine how to endow a computer with free will. Such a feat is beyond my comprehension. 

Despite the cost, I suspect that our good, all-powerful, all-knowing God gave us the gift of moral choice to make us fully human. God did not bring evil to the world, but he allowed humans to choose evil. God granted humans the ability to decide to turn from him in disobedience. 

Nevertheless, when evil harms us, God grieves for us and turns it to our good. Already in Genesis, we see this pattern again and again. Joseph’s brothers chose evil and sold him into slavery. Yet God used this situation to raise Joseph to be the highest official in Egypt next to Pharaoh. Joseph later assured his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. “ (Genesis 50:20) God’s plan included miraculous dreams for Pharaoh that Joseph interpreted as a prophecy about the future seven years of abundance and then seven years of famine. It also incorporated technology, as Joseph directed surplus food to be collected in each city, preserved in storehouses against the coming years of famine.

Harm can come from natural disasters such as famine. It can also come from failures in our technology. Engineers should work diligently to design technology to be as safe and reliable as we reasonably can. Those that use technology should be able to trust it -- conditionally. However, no one should ultimately rely on technology or people. Our ultimate trust should be in God. In this world, he will turn evil to our good, and in the next world, ultimately, he will wipe away every tear. This is one happy ending we can predict with certainty.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)