Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: technology

Is technology dehumanizing us?

The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forster depicts a future age in which technology is able to supply all our needs. People live in individual underground compartments, all their needs are supplied by the all-encompassing machine at the push of a button. Direct person to person contact is unheard of, having been replaced by electronic means and that permit one to see and speak to any one of his or her thousands of contacts at will.

Wars, conflicts, and crime have ceased, weather on the surface of the planet is of no consequence, thus there is no news. New ideas are to be feared, but events of history and nature are discussed endlessly and third or fourth hand ideas about those events are deemed to be the most trustworthy. The population never changes. Births and deaths are by permission of the machine; permission to die is only given when there is a birth. A mother’s responsibility ends when a child is born.

One person finds a way to get outside the machine to the surface of the earth. Before he is dragged back below ground by the repair mechanism of the machine, he realizes there still are a few people living out there. His longing for freedom is unfulfilled and eventually the all powerful, self repairing machine breaks down and everyone living in their individual cell of underground paradise dies.

A chilling forecast of where our society is headed? Perhaps. The story was written in 1908 and is a short novella with three chapters.

There is a lot of hand-wringing in our day about the influence and effects of technology. After reading this book I began to wonder if we might have things backwards. Is technology dehumanizing us? Or are we willingly surrendering our birthright of being fully human? Is our desire for convenience and security just a camouflage for the repugnance we feel at the inconvenience of having to interact with other people?

What about those of us who call ourselves Christians? We all give verbal support to the goal of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world. At the same time, some of us are repelled by cities because of all the people. We would prefer to live in an isolated rural setting and be as self-sufficient as possible. Which of these conflicting ideas is the true expression of our heart’s deepest desire? What does that say about our faith?

The Jews of Jesus’ day despised the Samaritans, to the point of considering anything touched by a Samaritan to be defiled. Jesus used all sort of creative ways to try and jar people out of that rut.

For those of us who are members, or who attend, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, the Sunday School lesson for the coming Sunday looks helpful. It is based on Hebrews 13 and has a lot to say about hospitality, including to strangers. It says: “The love of Christ will move us to enlarge our circle of friends.”

The best way to avoid becoming dehumanized is by frequent face to face contact with other humans. Technology offers us a way to maintain an appearance of a wide circle of friends without really having to listen to them. It is that unwillingness to listen to others, the desire to avoid admitting there might be anything valid about their point of view, that is dehumanizing. Technology is the enabler, but not the real problem.

Winter’s adventure lost


Seventy years ago, when our family wanted to go somewhere in winter we used a cutter much like the one illustrated.  We dressed very warmly, heated a stone or two in the oven, placed them on the floor of the cutter and draped horsehide robes over our laps and feet. Nowadays, I push a button to start the car before we go out to the garage, get in the car, push the buttons to heat the car seats and the steering wheel, and we’re on our way without really feeling how cold it is.

Seventy years ago there was no equipment for keeping driveways and roads open when the snowdrifts got deep. Nowadays, we expect driveways, roads, streets and sidewalks to be as clear in winter as in summer.

Seventy years ago we got up to an icy cold house, got the wood fire going in the kitchen stove and dressed around the warmth of that stove. We shovelled coal into the big old furnace in the basement and the heat would gradually rise up to warm the rest of the house. Nowadays the thermostat automatically turns the heat up when it’s time for us to get out of bed and turns it down again when it is bedtime.

Seventy years ago we wore long underwear and heavy socks in winter. To go outside we put on a parka with a hood to pull up over the toque on our head, put insulated boots on our feet, a scarf around our neck and two layers of mitts on our hands. Nowadays, we put on a coat, and sometimes gloves, and walk out to the car that is warming up already.

Seventy years ago I enjoyed winter. Nowadays, not so much. What happened?

Hard work is not a Christian virtue

The robots are coming. Technology already exists that could eliminate almost half of all jobs over the next ten years. Working harder isn’t going to save your job if it is on that list. Working smarter isn’t going to do it either. The economy is changing and the best way to ride the wave of change is to change our attitude about work.

Several years ago a business magazine did a survey of the qualities that businesses were looking for when hiring new employees. The top two items on that list were a desire to serve others and an aptitude to work with others in a team environment. Those sound like Christian virtues, don’t they?

Let’s stop telling young people entering the job market that if they are willing to work really hard they will always have a job. T’aint necessarily so. Especially not in the coming economic transformation. The old ideals of individualistic effort are about to be cast on the scrap heap.

We Christians have absorbed an idea from the world around us that values a person by the amount he produces. We also expect that success equates high production with the ability to spend more on the things we consume. Could we shift our attitude to value a person by what he or she contributes to the common good? That would seem more like a Christian value system, unless we would try to measure that contribution in dollars and cents.

W. Edwards Deming became a hero to Japanese industry when he showed them how to drastically improve the quality of their products in the years after World War II. It wasn’t until 1980, when Deming was 80 years old, that US business started to pay attention to what he had to say. His analysis of American management methods were devastating. He told companies that they needed to drive out fear and eliminate barriers between departments so that everyone could work together for the good of the business. He condemned annual performance reviews, saying they forced employees to compete against each other rather than working together for the common good.

In the survey I quoted earlier, educational accomplishments came far down the list of qualities that business leaders were looking for in new hires. Graduates who have a piece of paper showing their success in the classroom may well expect prospective employers to give them preferential treatment. The problem is that things learned in the classroom usually don’t have much practical value in the workplace.

Employers do want employees who are willing to be life long learners. They just want to be able to direct their employees towards learning things that will directly apply to their work and thus be of benefit to the business. Many years ago Henry Ford said: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

To put this all together, as Christians we should be teaching the value of a servant spirit. This should be evident in every area of life. Can we really serve God and not be willing to serve our fellow man?

Ideas like “I know better” or “I can do it better” should have no place in Christian life. We should not expect them to be useful in our work life either. Success in the coming economy will not go to the one who works the hardest to prove that he can do things faster and better than someone else. The person who dedicates his efforts towards the success of the whole group will be a valued member of any team.


Reflections on my bread machine saga

I thought I had this bread machine almost figured out, I had managed to produce two loaves that were completely edible. Friday’s trial number six proved that I still have a ways to go – the loaf rose too high and then fell. I cut off the top part and the rest is quite edible, but I still haven’t mastered the process.

My mother was an artisan in the kitchen. she baked white bread, brown bread, rye bread, buns and cinnamon rolls without a recipe and without a failure.  A machine that makes breads does not have my mother’s knowledge and skills.

A bread machine is known as a robot boulanger in French – a robot baker. It occurs to me that in order to successfully produce a good loaf of bread with this robot I have to become its servant. If I do not do everything exactly as the robot wishes my efforts will produce flop after flop.

How much are our lives ruled by things? The weekend cyberattack creates some doubt in my mind about the brave new world that is promised by the internet of things. Could some shadowy group, directed by a criminal organization or a hostile government, bring all those things to a crashing halt?

What about self-driving cars? If one reads closely the propaganda in their favour, it becomes evident that the ultimate goal is to eliminate private ownership of automobiles. Would that then make us all slaves to some arcane algorithm? Who would design and control that algorithm?

The ultimate question is: How would a Christian live by the leading of the Holy Spirit if he cedes so much control of his life to things and algorithms?

I am not a Luddite, but these questions trouble my thoughts.

April’s fool

First thing this morning I went to the kitchen and prepared the coffee maker to make my morning coffee. Then I went to the office and read my French Bible for morning devotions. I could hear the coffee gurgling into the mug as I read, but when I went to get my coffee I saw the mug had filled to overflowing and there was coffee all over the counter. How can that be? Our K-Cup machine only holds a cup of water.

I cleaned up the mess and made a second cup, turning the mug right side up this time. Well, what do you expect? It’s April 1 and I’m the fool.

Setting education free from the bureaucracy

It was the practice at one time to teach swimming by getting the learner to lie belly down on a footstool and practice moving his hands and feet in the way that would propel him through the water. That’s not done anymore, for the simple and obvious reason that it really didn’t work.

After making billions in the internet and cell phone business, French entrepreneur Xavier Niel decided a few years ago to open a school for anyone wanting to learn computer coding. The entrance requirements for the school are that one needs to be 18 to 30 years old and able to pass an online logic test. There is one more requirement: you have to be willing to work really hard.

The school is called 42, it has no tuition and no instructors; the students are just dumped in the pool and told to swim. For the first 30 days, students are required to work at the school 15 hours a day. Those who stick it out will learn as much in those 30 days as they would in a two-year university course. Then the real education begins.

In order to earn a diploma, the student must complete 21 levels of training. It is collaborative learning with peer-to-peer correcting and each one working at their own pace. Some might finish in two years, others may take longer, it doesn’t matter.
How effective is it? A study last year tested13,000 graduates in computer programming, or software engineering, from 700 universities worldwide. The graduates from 42 topped all the others.

Much of this information comes from an article in the French news magazine le Point, written by Idriss Aberkane. M. Aberkane then goes on to ask if the whole educational system wouldn’t benefit from being remade according to the 42 model.

There is an obstacle though: the educational bureaucracy. To quote M. Aberkane, “You know that the bureaucratic state has been reached in an organisation when the procedure is more important than the result.” If that is true of the public education system in France, it is doubly true in Canada.

Safety systems that make life dangerous

Last month a semi hauling aviation fuel was travelling down the A-40 expressway in Montréal. The truck was equipped with a state of the art safety system that was designed to bring the truck to a safe stop if it detected any sign of a leak from a load of fuel. I’m not sure exactly how this was supposed to work, certainly what happened that day could not have been the way it was intended to function.

The truck was driving in heavy traffic down the freeway when the safety system malfunctioned and brought the truck to a sudden stop. The driver of the cube van directly behind him was able to stop, but the two semis following him did not see in time and all four trucks smashed together, the aviation fuel caught fire and all four trucks burned. The driver of the first truck died in the fire, despite desperate attempts by another driver to open his door and get him out.

The one who died was an experienced, careful driver with a clean record. Perhaps it would have been better to trust him than some wonder of modern technology.

Last week a young man appeared in court in Saskatoon for breach of probation. He was obviously high on drugs, could not walk or talk properly. His mother was there and pleaded for him to be taken into custody. It seems that our legal system is so hedged about with rulings and regulations to protect the rights of the accused that the mother’s pleas were of no avail.

The young man went home, took his girlfriend’s car and drove away. He sideswiped a parked car and kept going to the freeway. On the freeway, he drove erratically at a high speed, struck a piece of construction machinery working beside the freeway hard enough to take off a wheel, lost control, went through the median into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with another car. The driver of that car died, the young man escaped with hardly a scratch. Now he is in custody.

Do you think it might have been better if the police had a little more leeway to take someone into custody if there was reason to believe he was a danger to himself or others?

The Bible contains much instruction about how a person should live a Christian life. It is all good and true, that is how we should live. But if we reduce Christian life to just following the rules, sooner or later there is going to be a disaster. No set of rules can cover every possible contingency that we will encounter in life. This is why the Holy Spirit has been given to each believer to guide us safely through life. He is our safety.

Dumb spam emails

Spam emails show up in my inbox every day, despite the increasing sophistication of spam filtering done by ISP’s. These emails tell me that my account at such and such a bank has been frozen and I need to click on the link provided to resolve this issue. In almost all cases I don’t have an account at the bank named. Or they tell me that my email account is being frozen because I have exceeded my spam quota. Again there is a link provided to fix this issue. Others tell of huge sums of money awaiting me in some foreign bank, or offer a fantastic job.

These emails are too ridiculous to be believable; many contain errors in grammar and spelling. We are apt to conclude that the people sending them are probably not very bright. I believe that is just what they want us to think.

You see, the spammers don’t want to have anything to do with people who would immediately go to the authorities when things go wrong. Even though the spammers are almost all offshore, their schemes could unravel if too much light was focused on them.

Their target audience is people who are not literate enough, or informed enough, to discern how ridiculous and improbable these messages are. People who have passed the requisite number of hours sitting behind a school desk, but not much has stuck; people for whom English is a second language that they have never quite mastered; older people whose mental faculties are not as sharp as they used to be, but who still have healthy bank accounts. In other words, the most vulnerable people in our society.

Phone scams are getting more sophisticated all the time. Last week a call came to my fax machine — from the phone number of my fax machine! That was odd, but not much can go wrong when a recorded message from offshore tries to talk to my fax machine. A few days later my land line phone rang and the call display said the call was from my phone line. I picked it up out of curiosity and got the beginning of a recorded message wanting to help me get out of debt. I think that if I had bit, the end result would have been the opposite of the promise.

I believe our best defence against these scams is to be aware that they are scams, and to do our part to inform others, especially those who might be vulnerable enough to take the bait.  If these scams were not finding enough people to take the bait, they would stop. Automated voice messages and emails are not costly to send out, it only takes a minuscule success rate to make them worthwhile to the perpetrators. The more people who are informed, the lower that success rate will be.

Lament for the incandescent light bulb

I’m having second thoughts about “environmentally friendly” light bulbs that produce little heat.  I live in Saskatchewan and that heat was not a wasteful byproduct.  On Christmas day this year the sun rose at 9:15 AM, set at 5:00 PM and the high for the day was -26° Celsius.  We are saving energy on our lighting by using CFL’s and LED’s, but now we use two or three electric heaters to supplement our furnace.  Where is the energy saving in that?

In summertime, when heat from incandescent bulbs might be a problem, we hardly turn the lights on anyway.  The sun rises at 5:00 AM and sets at 9:30 PM, and since we live on the flat open prairie we have almost full daylight an hour before the sun rises and an hour after it sets.

I am having second thoughts, too, about the kind of Christianity that produces a glaring bright light to illuminate the errors, faults, weakness and slip-ups of people, without generating any warmth.  Of course, we don’t want to choose a warm, fuzzy feeling over truth.  Truth matters, light matters, but is it really much good if there is no warmth to accompany it?

We have many bright sunny days in our prairie winters.  Light alone does not make anything grow.  But when spring comes to melt away the snow and thaw the soil, our barren landscape explodes into vibrant life.

So it is in our relationships with fellow Christians and with all our fellow human beings.  We need to be bearers of the light, but light without warmth creates a sterile landscape in the human heart.  Do our relationships seem fragile, prone to misunderstandings and hurt feelings?  Let’s try adding some warmth to those relationships.

This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).

He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love (1 John 4:8).

Suspicions of Suppression

Some years ago, a backyard mechanic on the Canadian prairies designed and built a carburetor that got fantastic gas mileage with no sacrifice of performance.  He drove a car equipped with this carburetor from Winnipeg to Vancouver, averaging 130 miles per gallon for the trip (or 107 miles per US gallon).

Or did he drive 217 miles on the prairies using only 1 gallon of gasoline?  News reports seemed to differ in the details.

In any case, the news reports caused a sudden drop in the stock market values of oil company stocks.  One day some oil company executives showed up on the inventor’s doorstep with a suitcase full of cash and bought the plans for this wonder carburetor and all the complete and incomplete carburetors that he had built.

Or was it auto industry executives?

Or was it the government, fearing a loss in tax revenue?

Or did thieves break into his shop and steal everything?

Whatever really happened, this invention that could have saved billions of dollars for consumers has been suppressed.  Occasionally however, a car that gets fantastic gas mileage is mistakenly delivered to a customer.  Fairly soon the car is recalled by the manufacturer for some supposed manufacturing defect; when it is returned to the customer, it gets normal gas mileage.

Or the owner wakes up in the middle of the night and sees some men working under the hood of his car.  When they realize they have been seen they quickly make their getaway.  The car still drives just fine, only now it uses a whole lot more gasoline.

Or the car is stolen in the night.  This is all the work of a sinister industrial conspiracy to keep us using as much gasoline as possible.

The reality?  Back in the 1930’s Charles Nelson Pogue of Winnipeg obtained patents for a carburetor that he believed would dramatically increase gas mileage.  Gasoline was passed through a spiral line that was heated by the exhaust manifold.  This was supposed to completely vaporize the gas before it entered the combustion chamber which would make it burn more efficiently.  This process would also increase the engine temperature by about 20°, which would enhance performance.

Mr. Pogue never claimed to have achieved the promised results.  Nevertheless the story took off, fuelled by the public’s desire to believe in technological money-saving miracles and their willingness to believe conspiracy theories.

The patent for the Pogue carburetor has now expired and the plans are available for anyone who wants to experiment on their family sedan.

It won’t work.  The gasolines in use today need to reach 450° F to completely vaporize.  Gasoline was more volatile when Mr. Pogue invented his carburetor. Apparently there were working models built back then.  They did achieve slightly better fuel mileage, at the cost of severely reduced performance.

Common sense would tell us that no auto manufacturer would find it advantageous to suppress such an invention.  If one company could produce vehicles that got far better gas mileage than all their competitors, wouldn’t they jump at the opportunity?

The idea that increasing engine temperature will increase efficiency lacks some logic as well.  If an internal combustion engine could be made 100% efficient, all the energy in the fuel would be transformed into work, not heat, and the exhaust manifold would be cold.

Very real gains in fuel efficiency have been achieved since Mr. Pogue invented his carburetor.  They have been small, incremental gains, but they add up.  Carburetors have been replaced by fuel injection.  Engine computers manage more efficient fuel burning.  Radial tires have reduced rolling resistance.  Synthetic motor oils reduce friction in the engine.  Lighter, more aerodynamic vehicles require less work from the engine to move them down the road.  Most cars now have four or five speed transmissions, reducing fuel use at cruising speeds.  Some engines are designed to allow some cylinders to cut out at cruising speeds.

Nevertheless, stories of the suppressed 200 mpg carburetor refuse to die.  Why are we so gullible?

Everyone likes the idea of saving money.   Many of us have a near mystical faith that technology will eventually solve all our problems.  But it would serve us well to develop a healthy scepticism when we hear whispers that the government, or industry, or some other sinister force doesn’t want us to know about  some almost miraculous breakthrough in technology.

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