Tag Archives: Technology

A New Breed of Philosopher King

“Plato imagined philosopher-kings guarding his utopia. Here in Aspen, a modern day utopia, we have Bill Gates…” (The Atlantic, 2010)

My most recent post on technology discussed what it might mean for a Christian working in cyber security to commit to helping those who are weak and oppressed. In it, I attempted to draw a picture of the weak and oppressed in this field: they are those who are unable either to communicate without being spied upon, or to protect their information and data.

I also argued that working in the field of security does not mean that you are helping the weak and oppressed, just as its true that simply by working as a doctor does not guarantee that you are practicing a healing form of medicine. In the case of security, the injustice in the field stems from the fact that security technologies can be used either to help people find their voice, or it can be used to oppress it with even greater efficiency than ever before. Towards the end of the post, I briefly mentioned that this notion of helping the weak and oppressed can be hard to do in practice, because usually money or success – or both – is often on the line.

This idea – that in the business of security, a righteous decision to help those who are oppressed is often in direct conflict with profit or worldly success – is at its heart an issue of business ethics, and so I want to expand a bit on business ethics in the technology sphere in this post.

Developing an ethic around technology is elusive, partly because it’s so difficult to understand or foresee the implications of technology once it’s out of your hands. Most technologists would argue that this simply isn’t their problem: leave the ethical questions to the philosophers.

So, rather than struggle with these issues, a task which, to be fair, requires as much philosophy as it does technical knowledge, the approach for virtually the entire post-Industrial period has been “shoot first, ask the ethical questions later.” But that’s starting to change: those in the technology sphere are finally realizing that the pursuit and promotion of technology simply for its own sake can indeed be a great good, but also a great evil, and that an ethic of sorts to govern technology is needed.

“Don’t Be Evil”

An interesting take on business ethics, and in particular on business ethics as it pertains to technology, comes from Google’s well-known slogan: “don’t be evil.” Despite the flak that Google and the rest of the tech industry has taken about invasions of privacy during the past few years, if you think about it, it’s not a terrible slogan: much to its credit, it directly addresses a central element of ethics in technology, which is that technical innovators are often faced with a dilemma about the dual uses of their technology and quite regularly have to make what amounts to a moral decision (I’m thinking here of the obvious examples: nuclear technology, some of the interesting consequences  of 3-D printing, and even controversies over Google Glass, but surely there are others as well).

“Don’t be evil” seems to suggest that intentionality is the key to these ethical dilemmas: don’t intentionally create something for evil purposes. But there’s a problem with this approach: who’s definition of evil are we going with? There’s a sense in which such evilness should be blatantly obvious and apparent on first blush. But what about business choices which are cowardly, or deceptive, or unwise, but are not evil? Is there a responsibility as technologists to define business ethics more broadly than the affirmation of a negative: “not evil”? Is there a responsibility to do good?

These are some challenging questions – questions that seem to cut across a lot of the topics discussed on this blog. Last week, Daniel Song wrote a piece titled What Medicine Cannot Give. He points out that technology is fundamentally altering the way we do medicine, sometimes in ways that we haven’t really worked out. He’s asking essentially the same questions: what is the end purpose of technology? Is technological progress always good? What parts of technology are good?

The Jobs Ethic: “Be Simple. Be Perfect”

In contrast to Google’s “don’t be evil” is Apple, who have, implicitly, formed their own ethic (or rather, have inherited the legacy of an ethic shaped by Steve Job’s dominating presence). I highly recommend an essay by Andy Crouch which he wrote in 2011 about Steve Jobs and Apple – he addresses many of these same questions in the context of the rising phenomenon of the ubiquitous personal electronic device, and offers an extremely insightful look at the underlying ethics propelling many of the creative processes at Apple. Crouch makes the point that the Apple phenomenon has at its center a religious-like worship of technology as the Ultimate Answer (and perhaps Jobs as the medium by which the Ultimate Answer is revealed). That’s certainly a worldview!

But if Google’s ethic of “don’t be evil” fails because it lacks a central, positively defined anchor, the Jobs ethic fails because it centers around the wrong thing. Technology cannot save this world: its solutions are dazzlingly efficient, but not effective; its successes are proclaimed overwhelming, but not everlasting; its uses impart power, but not the ability to wield that power for good. An ethic centered around technology misses the key catalyst to real progress in this world: changed human hearts. This is something that only Christ can deliver on.

A Christian Technology Ethic Centered on Christ

Christian technologists have a mandate that goes far beyond the moralized “don’t be evil.” We’re instructed to “avoid every kind of evil”, but we’re also told to “hold fast what is good” and even more importantly to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians) by continually evaluating whether good fruit has been, or will be, produced.

Jacques Ellul makes an interesting point in his writings on technology: technology has a way of getting out of control. Increasingly, and especially since the industrial revolution, it rules us rather than us ruling it. The underlying truth of this is deeply ingrained in the human psyche: the concept of technology that has gone out of control permeates literature. Think of Babel. Think of Frankenstein. Think of Hal. (As a side note, I think hackers implicitly understand this idea as well, thus the thrill of excitement that happens when we do, at last, get technology to work as we will and do our bidding.)

As Christians, we have to find ways to ensure that technology remains secondary to the person, and that it does not take up the center of our belief system and crowd out Christ. The arc of history has made it clear that this won’t “just happen” on its own: it will take thought and the answering of difficult questions. It will mean admitting when technology is out of control and stepping on the brakes. And troublingly, it might mean turning away from or delaying promising technologies that go against what it means to be human, or what it means to thrive.

I want to be crystal clear that a Christian ethic for technology does not mean the rejection of technology as an inherent evil. It does not mean setting the default view of technology as something to be suspicious of. And it does not mean some sort of acceptance of neo-luddite thought.

Instead, it is a call for discernment. As much as the ancient world yearned for the philosopher kings, in this new millennium we need philosopher builders who, in their role as technology-creators, are anchored in a Christ-centered worldview and willing to take upon themselves the task of asking and answering these difficult questions.

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The Injustice of the Unspeakables

There is great opportunity for both justice and injustice in technology, and the line separating the two is razor thin. The same technology that’s designed to hunt down terrorists can be used to hunt down “terrorists.” Clever code and specialized hardware that is designed to unscramble an opposing military’s secret plans – used to great effect against the Nazis during WWII – could just as easily be mutated into monitoring devices listening in on the encrypted communications of one’s own citizens.

When the topic of injustice in technology comes up these days, we tend to think of privacy rights, freedom of speech, or oppression on the Internet. There’s a lot of baggage involved, mostly political. Leave that baggage aside for a second, because while I don’t deny that there is a major political element to the question of injustice in the technology sphere, I think these discussions unfortunately tend to ignore those who have most at stake in the debate: the actual victims. For them, these questions of injustice aren’t just a nice topic to discuss over cocktails – it’s a daily fear that’s justified every time someone disappears. They are the Unspeakables – deprived of a voice in the conversation almost by definition. So take a moment, and actually read the verses below, because thankfully, God cares a lot about those who are oppressed, and he’s given them a voice at his throne that no one can silence:

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
Preserve my life from dread of the enemy.
Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
From the throng of evildoers,
Who whet their tongues like swords,
Who aim bitter words like arrows,
Shooting from ambush at the blameless,
Shooting at him suddenly and without fear.
They hold fast to their evil purpose;
They talk of laying snares secretly,
Thinking, “Who can see the?”
They search out injustice,
Saying, “We have accomplished a diligent search.”
For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep.
Psalm 64:1-6, ESV

The Unspeakables have hope, and we have hope, because God promises to bring justice. I think I’m also beginning to see how I may have the privilege of working, via my career in computer security, to extend God’s good and right justice to help the Unspeakables of our time.

You see, part of the problem “Out There” in the security industry (not targeting anyone in particular) is that once you’ve invented a great piece of security software, your job is to sell it. So you can start adding a little mac and cheese to your ramen-only diet. Are you going to sell it to whoever will buy it? No! Of course not, we have morals, duh! What if it’s a nation state? What if they’ll buy it for $20,000? $2 million? $20 million a year? Oh. And of course it’ll only be used to track down criminals who deserve to be punished. Ohh, ok, seems reasonable after all. Actually looking up their human rights record is a PitA when $10 mil is on the line, isn’t it?

Now before we get all worked up and self-righteous about those people “Out There” remember what Paul says in Ephesians 2: “and we also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature, and following its thoughts and desires.” Until the day we die, “Out There” is also “In Here.”

So that’s one of the great struggles in this field. As a computer security guy, will I chose to help those who are oppressed to find freedom and regain the ability to communicate as they will, or will I help the deep-pocketed evildoers? Will I care enough to ponder the potential repercussions and alternate uses of technology I create and who might get their hands on it? Will I even remember the oppressed? That is my mission and my goal.

Control Freak: Inside the Mind of a Hacker

Hi, I’m Han-wei and I’m a control freak. There, I said it. But I’m not alone. Most hackers are control freaks too. We’re addicted to the surge of power that engulfs your mind when a program you built actually works…suddenly the mass of metal and wires in front of you, like some ancient, magical simulacrum, springs to action churning on billions of bits till your orders are fulfilled. Or it dies trying. (For those of you who have no clue what this sense of power feels like, this is pretty much exactly the feeling.)

But I’m not here to wax anthropomorphic about a machine (though I have to admit it’s kind of fun). If you want that, you can go watch Bicentennial Man (1999). I’m here to figure out how my career as a computer security guy and my beliefs as a Christian can coexist in a broken world that’s awaiting Christ’s return. You see, I’m worried that if I don’t set aside time to think about these things now, I’ll slowly forget that there should be coexistence. I’ll begin to neatly separate the two halves of my life. I’ll start making immoral choices about how I do my job. Or perhaps I’ll simply end up selling out. No bueno.

So let’s get started. I mentioned above that I’m a control freak, and that this is a common reality for most hackers (clarification: by hacker, I mean the not-evil definition of the word. A hacker is “someone who builds novel or well-designed things”). Steven Levy, in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984), which chronicles the first developments of the hacker culture at MIT, to the early stages of Jobs’ Apple, to the first few gaming companies, constantly refers to this drive for greater and greater control: “Once you had control, the godlike power that comes from programming mastery, you did not want to let go of it.” The book is filled with stories of the men and women who fell captive to its spell. Some hackers used programming as a way to avoid an otherwise awkward social world with perplexing rules that seem to be ever changing and irrational. Others believed that computers would be the ultimate equalizer, marking the end of government and oppression. But at the heart of it all was the understanding that these machines contained untapped power that was available to anyone who was willing to learn how to use them.

There’s a special connection between the desire for control and technology – and I think everyone can relate to this. We like stepping on the gas pedal. We like buying things with two-day shipping on Amazon. It’s unreasonably fun to say “Siri, call home.” Technology offers the promise of control, and for the most part, we take the bait without a pause. Hackers merely experience this promise in its pure, unadulterated form: while you sorry folks muddle with your iPhone 5s and all the genie-like limitations that come with it, we can literally make a computer do anything. We have access to the Special Knowledge, and that knowledge is addicting in the extreme – control freak indeed.

As is usually the case, what happens at work doesn’t stay there – my tendency to want control over technology bleeds through to other parts of life. I live most of my life as a control freak. I hate owing people anything, because it gives them some sort of power over me. I freak out when I have health issues. I avoid asking for God’s will to be done till the last possible moment because I want to solve things myself.

Fundamentally, I have a deep fear (or suspicion) that God is not in control, and that if I don’t seize the reins of my life now, or seize the reins of power, or manipulate people to get what I want, everything will go careening off a cliff. Here’s what Bertrand Russell had to say about fear: “to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Perhaps he was intentionally responding to Proverbs 9:10 (or Psalms 111), or perhaps it’s just a very interesting coincidence: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

How can I live my life as if I believed God was truly in control? Would my decision-making process look different? Would the way I do computer security look different? Would anyone hire me to do security if I told them that “I used to be a control freak about security, but now I believe God’s in control?”

Politics in the Ordinary

Read an amazing article about “Making Citizenship Personal” which calls us to engage in politics by first and foremost starting with our own hearts and the institutions near and dear to us – our families, our neighborhoods, our schools, etc. In a way, this is a call that should not be too unfamiliar, for just as Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God — implying that he was somehow in competition with the kingdom of Caesar — and without taking up arms, so we who are his followers ought to think differently about what it means for us to engage in politics today. It’s not only about “renewing” politics by sending forth politicians armed with “a gospel worldview of politics”. It’s about reorganizing our own lives and relationships in accordance with what makes sense in God’s kingdom. Jesus didn’t cause a ruckus by gathering an army. Instead, he upended the traditional institution of the family and reorganized it around himself.

How ought we to respond to the problems of racism in society? Is it by expressing social solidarity and anger at certain symbolic representations of the problem (i.e. Trayvon Martin) by posting and sharing articles to such effect on social media? Is that how we can register our “protest” against the injustice of the world, to show that we’re on the side of justice, the side that will eventually be vindicated in the end? I cannot help but wonder whether the problem that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith (N.T. Wright’s version) is yet alive and twitching with us today in the attitude of the young intelligentsia towards hot social issues of the day. Red equals signs, the right likes on the right articles, the right shares, the right tweets, and the sense of smug self-satisfaction that comes from unmasking privilege, are these but the new “works of the law” to mark out one’s membership among the righteous?

But as the prophet Habakkuk writes: the righteous shall live by faith. Just as Jesus was vindicated by his resurrection, so those who work and wait for God will be vindicated. It is not the hearers of the law who are justified, but the doers.

In a world with shrill cries and catcalls for justice all around, let us be those who do justice and not merely hear it. This means trying to embody it in our own relationships. Hate racism? Let’s start with our own hearts, for we might be surprised to see what we find or what we might end up being called to do. It might mean changing our lifestyle to try to force ourselves beyond our accustomed patterns. It might mean some hard talks. Some discomfort. Some damaged relationships.

It might mean different things for different people. But one thing is certain. It means something.