Tag Archives: engineering

Bringing Order out of Chaos

Summer has finally arrived in Seattle. We just finished a very typical cycle that we like call “Juneuary,” when the weather feels much more like January than it does June. It happens pretty much every year, and every year Seattleites moan and complain about it. We often get a nice stretch of weather in late April or early May, just to tease us, and then it goes back to being cold and rainy for another six to eight weeks. But then something magical happens; sometime during the first or second week of July, we go from 50 degrees and raining to 70-80 degrees and sunny, and it generally stays that way through the first part of September. It’s as if someone just flips a switch, and Seattle becomes one of the most glorious places to be in the continental United States.

This is also the time when Seattleites return to their gardening in earnest. The soaking rains of June followed by a few days of warmth and sun seem to turbo-charge the growth of every kind of plant, including those that we’d rather not have: the dandelions, clover, and moss that thwart our attempts at a decent lawn; the insidious vines that creep over from the neighbor’s yard and wind their way around everything; and all manner of quick-growing weeds that seem to spring up from nowhere and fill the planter beds, crowding out the flowers and bushes that we so meticulously planted the year before.

I often joke that our yard is very “intertextual,” which is a nice way of saying that it’s really a complete mess. I was out in the garden yesterday, mowing and trying my best to bring some order to the chaos that is our yard. I’ve never been a talented gardner, so my efforts are mostly on the macro level: mowing down the lawns, pruning back the large bushes, ripping out clusters of weeds and dead plants, or digging up sections that are beyond the point of any kind of surgical redemption. I often think that I am really just holding back nature’s unending and rather effective efforts to reclaim our yard and house  to the wilderness. What little pastoral tranquility we have achieved is the result of a constant struggle to bring order out of chaos.

Of course, gardeners are not the only people who bring order out of chaos. In many ways, this is what all artists do too; they creatively engage with unformed materials in order bring about new forms of order. Gardners create an ordered nature out of wilderness. Sculptors release enticing forms from the solid blocks of material that surround them. Potters caress beautiful and useful shapes out of formless clay. Dancers bring purpose and structure to otherwise random movement. And musical composers stich together ordered melodies, harmonies, and rhythm from a cacophony of possible sounds.

It may sound odd, but I think engineers do this as well. This shouldn’t be all that surprising though, as engineering and art are far more connected than we typically assume. The term ‘artisan’ points towards this connection; we don’t use it all that much anymore, but it refers to someone who is skilled at making things that are both useful and beautiful. Engineering, and especially computer programming, is really an artisanal craft. It requires a creative engagement with the world, an engagement that seeks to bring order out of disorder.

To be a bit more accurate, artists and artisans participate in the ongoing, redemptive work of God to bring about order in creation. Now, I’m not a trained theologian, nor play one on TV, so you’ll have to excuse me if I inadvertently start spouting heresy here. But it seems to me that much of what God does in the word involves bringing about order out of chaos, or restoring that order whenever it begins to disintegrate. We as artists and engineers get to participate in that redeeming and sustaining action, and we do so through our creativity.

In his book Voicing Creation’s Praise, Jeremy Begbie argues that “human creativity is supremely about sharing through the Spirit in the creative purpose of the Father as he draws all things to himself through the Son” (179). He then goes on to describe how we get to participate in this work:

There needs to be an interaction with creation, a development, a bringing forth of new forms of order out of what we are given at the hand of the Creator. And there will be a redeeming of disorder, mirroring God’s redeeming work in Christ, a renewal of that which has been spoiled, a re-ordering of what is distorted. This redeeming activity will entail a penetration of the disorder of the world—human and non-human, just as the Son of God penetrated our twisted and warped existence. It will also entail judgement; an unmasking of disorder, a denunciation of that which disfigures the world, as at Golgatha. There will be a transformation, the forging of a new order out of the ugliness of disorder, as in Christ’s resurrection (179).

How do you participate in the redemption of disorder, the bringing of order out of chaos? What would the “unmasking of disorder” and the “denunciation of that which disfigures the world” look like in your vocation?

Becoming a Christian Engineer

In 1991, I was a fresh-faced, fairly naive information systems major who was about to graduate from college. A few months before the end of school, an alumnus who worked for Microsoft came to our seminar and showed us a video of a speech Bill Gates had made the year before at Comdex. The speech was entitled “Information at Your Fingertips” and it was Bill’s first attempt at articulating a vision for the future of PC industry, a future where everyone would have instant and easy access to whatever information they could ever need or want (he gave another more-well-known version of the speech in 1995). Watching it today, one can’t help but smile at Bill’s enormous glasses, bad haircut, and cheesy delivery, but at the time, his vision looked incredibly cool to me. I knew then that I desperately wanted to be a part of making it happen.

I jumped into the software industry shortly after graduation, and spent nearly a decade designing, building, and managing software that could deliver information to people’s fingertips. Although I had studied information systems, I did so at a small, integrative liberal arts college, so most of what I learned about the practice of software engineering was actually acquired on the job. I learned C, then C++, and a smattering of other higher-level languages. I became adept at relational databases and SQL. I read books on algorithms, object-oriented theory, design patterns, human-computer interaction, and obscure programming tricks. I learned to evaluate the efficiency of everything I did, to seek the optimal solution. I read Dilbert religiously. I watched a lot of sci-fi. I became an engineer.

As I acquired the technical skills of software programming, I also took on some of the more annoying behaviors that are often characteristic of engineers. I became quite arrogant, assuming that my computer skills were evidence of a broader intellect that enabled me to have the correct opinion on just about anything. I became easily frustrated when people chose what I deemed to be a suboptimal course of action. I figured that I was capable of solving just about any problem given the right set of tools and techniques. And by “any problem,” I meant, any problem: automating sales reports was really just a special case of solving world hunger, homelessness, and the troubled middle east. All that was needed, I naively assumed, was a bit of rational decision making, supported by better computer systems that could catalog and deliver the right information at the right time.

After a few years, however, I started to notice that with every set of problems we solved, a whole new set of problems seemed to emerge. We would start every project with the greatest ambitions and expectations, but by the end we were already starting to see its shortcomings and thinking “oh well, we’ll fix that in the next version” (and we always assumed there would be a “next version,” even though our customers would have probably preferred us to just fix the problems in the existing one). Throughout the 1990s, we did automate scores of routine tasks, and developed tools that could catalog and retrieve information in ways similar to Bill’s vision, but our greatest social problems still seemed as intractable as ever. In some ways, we may have actually made them worse.

By the late 1990s, I was starting to get pretty cynical about the software industry in particular, and technology in general, so one of my friends suggested that I read Neil Postman’s book Technopoly. It was just what I needed. I can still remember how the following passage completely stopped me in my tracks:

You need only ask yourself, What is the problem in the Middle East, or South Africa, or Northern Ireland? Is it lack of information that keeps these conflicts at fever pitch? Is it lack of information about how to grow food that keeps millions at starvation levels? Is it lack of information that brings soaring crime rates and physical decay to our cities? Is it lack of information that leads to high divorce rates and keeps the beds of mental institutions filled to overflowing? (60)

I stayed in the software industry for a few more years, but reading Technopoly eroded my faith in modern technology’s ability to solve our larger social problems. I channeled my inner grumpy old man, and started to wonder if modern technology was actually more the cause than a solution to our social ills. I read Thoreau and pined for the simpler life. We got rid of our TV and spent more time reading. We bought a dining table made from reclaimed factory floor boards. We replaced the overhead electric light with a candelabra that we diligently lit each night. I exchanged my power tools for manual ones. I replaced my GoreTex with wool. I bought a push mower. I became a Romantic.

Well, sort of. I’m a city-boy at heart, and I never really learned how to appreciate poetry, so I was never quite the card-carrying Romantic. Still, I became much more of a techno-pessimist and eagerly read all the prominent Christian critics of modern technology. I also began to wonder whether one could really be both a engineer and a sincere Christian. If, as Ellul and Borgman claimed, industrialists and engineers were primarily responsible for the modern mindset, including all the social ills that it led to, how could a sincere Christian continue to do that kind of work?

Shortly thereafter, I left software to go back to graduate school, hoping to deepen my understanding of the ways in which modern technology had influenced our culture, and determine if my Christian and my engineering selves could really co-exist. I had never been much of a historian (business and computer science are perhaps some of the most a-historical fields there are), but the critics I most admired seemed to be well-versed in the history of technology, so I thought I should pursue that as well. It turned out to be a good decision, but not for the reasons I originally thought.

As I began to study the history and sociology of technology, I discovered that most critics of technology, especially the ones who write for a popular audience, rely on a theory that is no longer supported by most historians. That theory, commonly known as “technological determinism,” posits that technologies have a kind of one-way, deterministic “impact” on any society that adopts them. The stronger forms of this theory also hold that technological innovations advance according to an internal logic that makes technological progression inevitable and unstoppable.

Although technological determinism was the dominant historical theory for the first half of the 20th century, most current historians consider it to be only half right. Technologies most certainly change the societies that adopt them, but those changes are rarely, if ever, deterministic. Instead, detailed historical cases show that consumers play very active roles in shaping our understanding of what a new device is and is good for. In some cases, they also instigate a physical or functional reshaping of the new device as they seek to make it fit better into their lives (for example, the Kosher mobile phone).

This discovery opened up the possibility that I, as a Christian who was also passionate about technology, could actively engage in the reshaping and redeeming of these new devices. When we think as a technological determinist, we are left with a fairly bleak choice: adopt the new device and suffer the inevitable consequences; or completely reject it and hope you can convince others to do so as well. As Sherry Turkle has reminded us, this is the language of addiction—it’s similar to the way an addict thinks about his or her drugs. But when we realize that both engineers and consumers play active roles in the shaping of new technologies, a new possibility arises: the opportunity for a participatory redemption.

This realization also helped me see how I might reintegrate my Christian and engineering selves. If technologies did not have deterministic impacts and did not advance entirely according to their own logic, then it was dreadfully important for more Christians to be actively involved in not only the engineering of new devices and systems, but also their early adoption. If Christians aren’t there to inject their own values into the design, production, marketing, and adoption of new technologies, we really have no excuse if we don’t like how things turn out. Blaming deterministic outcomes just obscures what is really a lack of engagement.

I also began to realize that my Romantic reaction was just as short-sighted as the techno-optimism of my youth. It was certainly good to question the purported benefits of modern technology, and perhaps reject a few things that were really more of a distraction than a help, but to deny the flourishing I felt when designing and building software was to deny an important part of who I was made to be. Not all of us are made to be farmers or poets. Some of us are made to be engineers and artisans.

Are you a Christian involved in some kind of engineering practice? If so, how do you integrate your faith and your work? What makes a Christian engineer different from a secular one?

Thinking Through Technology, part I

Thinking Through Technology by Carl MitchamOver the holidays I started a new book that I think at least some of you will really want to read. It’s entitled Thinking Through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy, and was written by Carl Mitcham back in 1994. It is by far the most complete review of the philosophy of technology I have ever read, but it also calls for a research agenda that is very close to my own.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, entitled “Historical Traditions in the Philosophy of Technology” is a rather long (and at times very dry) review of the existing literature, but with a few added twists. Mitcham very keenly observes that there are really two separate bodies of work that both use the name “philosophy of technology.” The first comes from engineers who step back from their day-to-day work to philosophize about what they do (e.g., Kapp, Engelmeier, Dessauer). The second comes from humanities scholars (philosophers, historians, sociologists, etc) who make technology their primary object of inquiry (Mumford, Ortega Y Gasset, Heidegger, Ellul, etc). He refers to the former as Engineering Philosophy of Technology (EPT), and the latter Humanities Philosophy of Technology (HPT).

Although these groups seem on the surface to be doing similar things, Mitcham shows how they are actually approaching the subject from vastly different perspectives. EPT tends to take a kinder view of technology, and is more analytic when it engages with specific devices or systems. HPT, on the other hand, tends to be far more critical of technology, and more interpretive when examining specific cases. EPT pays more attention to the act of engineering, stressing its inherent creativity and links to the other arts. HPT pays more attention to the societal “impacts” of technology, taking a far more technological determinist view.

This should not be altogether surprising, Mitcham notes, when one considers the personal experience and motivations of those in each camp. The engineers-turned-philosophers speak from their direct experience making things and bringing new devices and systems to market. Because they understand the technologies at a deeper level, they can also analyze new systems more carefully, teasing out what is essential and fixed versus was is accidental and changeable. They also tend to recognize that any technology exists within a rich sociotechnical system of use, a system that is just as influenced by social forces as it is by technological ones.

Humanities scholars that examine technology typically don’t have any direct experience with the making of new technologies, nor do they have much in the way of theoretical engineering knowledge. They are reacting to a society that has seemingly lost interest in what these scholars know and love: the classic works of western thinkers found in most humanities curricula. They see the public glued to televisions, or in more recent years mobile communication devices and social networks, and fear their impending irrelevancy. Mitcham notes that HPT can often appear as “a series of read-guard attempts to defend the fundamental idea of the primacy of the nontechnical” (39); that is, attempts to reclaim the idea that what matters most in this world is not engineering or its products, but the never-ending reflection on what it means to be human and to live justly together.

What I appreciate most about Mitcham is that he recognizes the need for both EPT and HPT. If we are to ever get a handle on what technology is and how it relates to society, we need the perspectives of both practicing engineers and humanities scholars. Each has only one part of the puzzle, and each has quite a lot to learn from the other.

After discussing EPT vs HPT, Mitcham ends Part I with the most complete review I’ve ever seen of the usage of the term ‘technology’ in scholarship. Here he relies more on the history of technology, though his sources are a bit dated, and thus his critiques are not necessarily as relevant given the more recent scholarship in the field. Still, he does a much more complete job of analyzing the use of tekhnē in classical Greek than I have ever seen before, and uses that to make the argument that technology in the modern era is fundamentally different from pre-modern craft and architecture. I would agree with him on that, but Mitcham is unfortunately so far silent on whether we are now moving into a post-modern era, and if so, how engineering and its products might be shifting again into something entirely different. Perhaps he will get into that in part II.

The Artistry and Engineering of Steve Jobs

Steve JobsIn response to the death of Steve Jobs earlier this week, there has been a virtual flood of great writing reflecting on the man himself, his accomplishments, or his influence on authors’ personal lives. I’ve enjoyed reading all this, but the one source that has caught my attention the most is an oral history interview that Steve Jobs did with the Smithsonian back in 1995.

Although the interview was conducted while he was at NeXT (after he had been forced out of Apple and before he returned), Jobs was asked to reflect a little on his time at Apple. He started by describing what it was like to work there in the early years:

Apple was this incredible journey. I mean we did some amazing things there. The thing that bound us together at Apple was the ability to make things that were going to change the world. That was very important. We were all pretty young. The average age in the company was mid-to-late twenties. Hardly anybody had families at the beginning and we all worked like maniacs and the greatest joy was that we felt we were fashioning collective works of art much like twentieth century physics. Something important that would last, that people contributed to and then could give to more people; the amplification factor was very large.

Notice how he described the way they thought about what they were doing: “…we felt like we were fashioning collective works of art much like twentieth century physics.” For Jobs, there was little distinction between building computers, practicing science, and creating art. The interviewer picked up on this, and asked him to explain why he used the word ‘art’ instead of ‘engineering’. Jobs replied:

I actually think there’s actually very little distinction between an artist and a scientist or engineer of the highest calibre. I’ve never had a distinction in my mind between those two types of people. They’ve just been to me people who pursue different paths but basically kind of headed to the same goal which is to express something of what they perceive to be the truth around them so that others can benefit by it.

The interviewer then tried to clarify this by asking if “the artistry is in the elegance of the solution, like chess playing or mathematics?” Jobs disagreed, saying it was more profound than that:

No. I think the artistry is in having an insight into what one sees around them. Generally putting things together in a way no one else has before and finding a way to express that to other people who don’t have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight that makes them feel a certain way or allows them to do a certain thing. I think that a lot of the folks on the Macintosh team were capable of doing that and did exactly that. If you study these people a little bit more what you’ll find is that in this particular time, in the 70′s and the 80′s the best people in computers would have normally been poets and writers and musicians. Almost all of them were musicians. A lot of them were poets on the side. They went into computers because it was so compelling. It was fresh and new. It was a new medium of expression for their creative talents. The feelings and the passion that people put into it were completely indistinguishable from a poet or a painter. Many of the people were introspective, inward people who expressed how they felt about other people or the rest of humanity in general into their work, work that other people would use. People put a lot of love into these products, and a lot of expression of their appreciation came to these things. It’s hard to explain.

It may be hard to explain, but anyone who has worked in the computer industry knows exactly what Jobs is talking about. When I started writing software for a living in 1991, I too was struck by how many of my coworkers were musicians, or artists in some other field. We had all gotten into computers not because we had always been nerdy, engineering types, but because we saw the inherent creativity involved in designing and building software, and the amazing flexibility of the computer as an creative platform.

What Jobs is getting at here is the deep link between art and craft, a link that is embedded in the very word we use to describe all that cool stuff that Apple made: ‘technology’. As I described in an earlier post, the greek root of the word is typically translated as art or craft, so the literal meaning of technology is just “the study of art or craft.” In English we use the term ‘artist’ to describe someone who makes decorative things and ‘artisan’ to describe someone who makes practical things, but people like Jobs and his employees at Apple demonstrated just how blurry and permeable that distinction really is.

In fact, artists and artisans are really doing the same thing, just in different ways: they develop “an insight into what [they see] around them” and then put “things together in a way no one else has before…finding a way to express that to other people who don’t have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight….”

My first computer was an Apple IIe, and I write this now on an iMac. In between I’ve used many different kinds of computers and operating systems, all of which were the products of talented artist-engineers. But Steve Jobs and the “collective works of art” he inspired and directed have probably had the most profound impact on my life. That first Apple IIe sparked my imagination and drew me into a new creative world that changed the course of my life.

Thanks Steve. Rest in Peace.