Authors: Ethan J. Brue, Derek C. Schuurman, Steven H. VanderLeest
Pages: 240 (Paperback)
Have you used technology today? Even the most Luddite among us use technology on a daily basis—the printed words you’re reading right now, the clean water coming and dirty water leaving your sink, your transportation arrangements (even if you walk everywhere, you probably wear shoes, at least part of the year), and the list goes on. Because of the ubiquity of technology in our lives, it is important that all of us are aware of the ways that technology shapes our dreams, and how our dreams, in turn, shape technology.
Many technologies are such integral parts of our lives that we don’t think of them as technology, but “we often fail to recognize pervasive presence…because they have faded into the background of our conscious observation” (13). Given the possibilities for the invisibility of technology in our lives, it is important that we are all attuned to the biases and values embedded in our technology, and it is even more crucial that engineers understand the myriad and far-reaching consequences of the technologies they create.
“Because of the ubiquity of technology in our lives, it is important that all of us are aware of the ways that technology shapes our dreams, and how our dreams, in turn, shape technology.”
Helping engineers to see and understand these values and responsibilities is the intent of the new book, A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers, by Ethan Brue, Derek Schuurman, and Steve VanderLeest. Their vision is “to provide a guide for Christian engineers and others working with technology to responsibly navigate today’s technological terrain” (vii). The first chapter discusses how humans throughout time and space have dreams and longings to invent, noting that “the Christian faith does not restrain engineers from having extravagant ideas but encourages us to imagine what God desires. As Christians our dreams must be animated by the biblical story” (14). After this initial collaborative discussion of technological dreams, the remaining nine chapters address the complexities of achieving technological outcomes aligned with the Christian faith. The chapters nearly function as stand-alone segments written by one of the three authors, which leads to a lack of cohesion for the reader throughout an otherwise informative and useful book.
After Ethan Brue surveys the topic of technology in the biblical story in chapter two, Steve Vanderleest picks up in chapter three to explicate the value-ladenness of technology, beginning with the accusation that a particular designer (Robert Moses) built racist bridges. Design decisions, Vanderleest observes, “can have political, racial and moral biases, which may not be obvious” (39). He goes on to discuss how the technologies we use impact how we “think, work, and interact” (40), before diving into some common myths about the neutrality of technology (spoiler alert: he argues that technology is inherently non-neutral). The chapter also emphasizes the responsibility of the engineer in the consequences (both intentional and unintentional) of the design decisions, citing both the infamous Hyatt Regency walkway collapse and God’s command to put a railing around the roofs of dwellings in Deuteronomy. The chapter concludes by providing tips for discerning design, noting that “spiritual discernment includes the ability to make choices recognizing and pursuing goodness in the world around us while recognizing and fleeing from sin. Christian engineers have the high calling to use such discernment as they design technology. God invites us to become his redemptive agents, designing for shalom” (61).
In the fourth chapter, VanderLeest introduces guiding principles for design called the “design norms.” Drawing heavily on the work of Monsma et. al. in “Responsible Technology” (Eardmans, 1986) and clearly rooted in the Dooyweerdian modal aspects, the bulk of chapter four presents a more readable and slightly modified version of the original design norms. Each norm is accompanied by a short example, which further helps to clarify the need for the norm and how it plays out. For example, the norm of justice may suggest obvious ethical and legal obligations, but the example—the bias in automobile design that makes women “17% more likely to be killed in a car crash than men”—demonstrates that the scope of the justice norm should extend beyond simple legal and ethical obligations (85).
Following the design norms, in chapter five, Derek Schuurman articulates how a Christian engineer’s ethics should both encompass and surpass the professional engineering ethics codes, and then in chapter six, he discusses the role of pride and sin in engineering design. The next two chapters complement each other nicely, with Brue providing a look backwards through the history of the development of the (first) electric car in chapter seven, and Schuurman considering two widespread imaginings for the future of technology (utopianism and determinism) in chapter eight.
“…we should be equally eager and wary as we love God with technology.”
Chapter nine concludes the explicative portion of the book (chapter ten is a series of emails working out some of the book’s ideas in practice) with a discussion by VanderLeest about the many ways that the work of an engineer is in line with Jesus’ call to “go and make disciples.” In addition to discussing the potential opportunities to share the gospel through our actions and words in the workplace, he touches on ways that we should be intentional about technology (both using and creating it) and on how we should be equally eager and wary as we love God with technology. Finally, he exhorts readers to “love our neighbors technologically by designing new technology that addresses human problems in humane and God-glorifying ways” (174).
As an engineering professor who engages with these topics regularly in my classroom, I found this book helpful in reminding me of the philosophy of how and why my work as an engineer matters. In keeping with the author’s guidebook intentions, the stand-alone feeling of the book’s chapters provide a useful resource for faculty or engineers who might want to jump in for a particular topic. In particular, I found the summary of the design norms (Ch. 3) to be a readable overview to this important set of tools in holistic engineering design, and I also found the historical and future perspectives on technology (Ch. 7-8) particularly enjoyable to read. While the book is clearly aimed at engineers, these two chapters would be interesting and accessible to tech-interested individuals. The discussion on following Jesus’ calling in your work (Ch. 9) would also be interesting to anyone (not just engineers) in a professional or technical career. Overall, if you are an engineer or technologist looking to make connections between your faith and your practice, this book will help you along the way.
To listen to a conversation with Ethan Brue, a co-author of this book, click here.