Almost 200 years ago, Charles Babbage (1791–1871), an English inventor and mathematician, was commissioned by the British government to develop a system for calculating the rise and fall of the tides. For a country that ruled the oceans, tidal patterns were an important issue. Babbage designed a machine that was capable of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, as well as performing other kinds of calculations. However, the task of building the “analytical engine” with some 50,000 cog teeth and gear wheels proved to exceed the technical skills of mid-nineteenth-century artisans.
It wouldn’t be until the early 1940s that a “real” computer was built, based on the use of electrical switches rather than gears. A little later, vacuum tubes were introduced. The results were astounding, but these electronic computers were extremely large and heavy. With the subsequent introduction of transistors and, later, of semiconductors, integrated circuits, and microprocessors, computers could become much smaller and ever more powerful. The process toward further miniaturization and complexity is still ongoing. Today my iPhone has thousands of times more memory than the first desktop computer, with its large “floppy disks” that I bought in the mid-1980s!
In 1965, Gordon E. Moore, an American businessman and engineer, predicted that the number of transistors on a microchip would double every two years, while at the same time, the price of computers would go down sharply. His prediction proved to be quite accurate, even though, in reality, the time of this doubling process is currently closer to every 18 months.
too late to turn the switch
The computer has revolutionized modern life to the point that it would be impossible to return to the pre-computer era. I completed a doctoral dissertation in the early 1990s, and I don’t need anyone to convince me of the superiority of a word processor over a traditional typewriter! I remember with horror the term papers and writing projects of earlier times. Correcting typos, making last-minute stylistic improvements, or inserting an extra footnote could cost many hours. Now it’s a matter of minutes before a laser printer spits out a new version of a manuscript. Today computers are everywhere: banking, billing, accounting, managing inventories, and paying salaries would be unthinkable without computers. So would writing books and articles and editing them.
When I work on a new book or an article, I still consult other books, but Google has become my constant companion, allowing me to gather a wealth of data without having to travel to archives and libraries. The computer has proven to be an invaluable learning tool for young and old. Moreover, it saves lives, not only by aborting a spaceflight by a last-minute detection of technical problems but also by providing physicians with instant information from medical data banks and by controlling high-tech medical equipment. Travel would be very different indeed without the computerized cockpits of airplanes and the global reservation systems that assure us of an economy aisle seat on the Wednesday before Christmas on the 9:30 A.M. flight between Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.
Even Bible study has been greatly affected by the computer. Specialized computer programs enable the Bible student to quickly find all Bible texts in which a given word occurs without having to pull a concordance off the shelf. These Bible programs also give us the opportunity to look at the original words in Hebrew and Greek and to compare the rendering of the King James Version with that of the Revised Standard Version and a host of other translations. Bible translators—whether they’re working in an air-conditioned office in California or under a thatched roof in the African rain forest—depend on their computers.
Yet some of us are beginning to wonder whether the computer is, after all, such an unmitigated blessing. As with any other tool, it can be used and abused. It can help to foster peace and prosperity, but it can also guide weapons of mass destruction. It may be an important learning tool, but it can also turn millions around the world into pornography addicts. The computer can put essential facts at the fingertip of scholars but can also help profit-driven organizations to amass data on millions of citizens, which can then be sold to businesses that will use this knowledge in dubious ways.
When confronted with the darker side of the digital revolution, some will say, “You can always pull the plug.” But pulling the plug on computers is no longer a realistic option. Could your bank, your insurance company, the hospital that has your medical records, or the jumbo jet that transports you at 40,000 feet “pull the plug”? Within an astonishingly brief span of time, our culture has come to rely on the computer to such an extent that pulling the plug would create social and economic chaos and, in some cases, even suicide. But that should not make us blind to some of the negative aspects of the computer.
Whenever we learn to manufacture something by using a sophisticated tool, we are bound to lose valuable skills. Many of the old crafts have almost disappeared because things are no longer handmade. And that’s true of intellectual competencies as well. Today many people are unable to perform relatively simple mental arithmetic problems. Why bother to master such skills if you can buy a five-dollar calculator at any drugstore? Computers can correct our spelling and are doing better and better in helping us with our grammar, or even with our translations from English into foreign languages and vice versa. Our entire public and personal lives are now so dependent on computers that virtually everything comes to a standstill when the computers are “down.”
Computers can be used very creatively, but they can have an adverse impact on creativity. For one thing, the computer often hides sloppy work. Any teacher knows that a term paper or thesis with a superb layout, impeccably printed on a high-resolution laser printer, may actually have very little intellectual substance or may even turn out to be a clever collation of article abstracts from a data bank. And who among us who has played chess with our computer has never succumbed to the temptation to let the computer suggest our next move rather than torture our own brain?
And there are other things to consider. People must meet other people. We need to interact and communicate with real people if we want to avoid the stress that results from isolation and want to avoid losing our social and relational skills.
People of all age groups, but especially teenagers and young adults, often spend an inordinate amount of time watching movies on their computer screens, fiddling with their smartphones, or playing computer games. New computer games continue to flood the market. Many of those games are not as innocent as some people claim. They tend to emphasize competition, ambition, and ruthlessness. And they can become dangerously addictive.
Computers not only pose psychological problems but may also be hazardous for your physical health. Computer vision syndrome (CVS), with such symptoms as blurred vision, eye strain, and headaches, plagues millions of people. In the Western world, repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a prominent occupational illness. The muscles and tendons become strained from holding the arms for hours over a flat keyboard in a stationary position. RSI-related problems may range from mild pain to total disability.
The computerization of our world causes yet another kind of serious problem. Increasingly, law enforcement agencies have to deal with computer crime. Hackers attack commercial entities, public services, and government institutions. And—to mention just one other social concern—our privacy is being assaulted by information technology giants that are in the lucrative business of collecting data about our communication habits, memberships, subscriptions, and spending patterns and selling these to businesses and organizations that want to approach us with their products or messages!
A recent development in computer technology must perhaps be watched even more closely. Some computer programs now allow us to become part of what we see on the screen. Wearing special high-tech goggles and a pair of special gloves that are wired with fiber-optic cables, the user seems to be moving around within the computer-generated three-dimensional images on the screen and has the sensation of actually handling the objects he or she sees.
As this technology is further perfected, the illusions will become less and less distinguishable from reality. Eventually, the user of virtual reality programs may have an electronic bodysuit that will enable him or her to play “virtual tennis,” or even to enjoy(?) “virtual sex.” The sky will be the limit in this dreamworld where traditional human boundaries cease to exist and where the computer will give its user the illusion of exchanging the reality of this life for the “virtual reality” of the cyber world!
a matter of choice
In past decades, many Christian preachers and religious authors warned about the dangers of television. Even today, many bemoan the role of television in modern life and warn their listeners and readers about the dangers of being exposed to a constant diet of crude sex, violence, materialism, and superficiality. However, few would suggest getting rid of television altogether. But it remains sound advice to be very discriminating in our viewing habits and to make sure that the TV screen doesn’t enslave us. In fact, it’s always a good thing to be selective in our use of any kind of technology or medium to ensure that it doesn’t compromise our values.
I would certainly not want to suggest that our homes should be computerless. But if I believe that a positive and responsible lifestyle focuses, among other things, on total health, I will try to use any type of digital equipment—and that includes my laptop, tablet, or smartphone—in such a way that I minimize the danger to my physical, mental, and spiritual health. If I try to steer my children away from lurid TV shows, I should also be concerned about their use of video games. If I want to stimulate creativity in myself and in my children, I must be selective in how I use my computer. And as these virtual-reality products enter my world, and possibly my home, I must make sure that I continue to focus on Ultimate Reality—on God and His desire to save me—rather than on a man-made virtual reality in which humans become the measure of all things.
Must my laptop or tablet be “converted”? Even though we say that computers “talk” to other computers, that they have a “memory” and can “read” computer “languages,” they are dead objects. They may “learn” from their mistakes, but they have only artificial intelligence; they lack consciousness and cannot make value judgments, doubt, or have faith, and they most certainly cannot be “converted.” We, who use these complicated machines, are in charge, and we may have to be converted with regard to the way we use our digital equipment. We can decide what our computer will do for us. If we don’t like certain programs, we can delete them; if we object to certain applications, we can uninstall them. If we’re at risk of becoming enslaved to our electronic companion, we can limit the time we spend with it. We can make sure that the virtual reality of Silicon Valley doesn’t dim our view of the Ultimate Reality of our Christian convictions.
Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands. Since his retirement from pastoral and church leadership, he continues to be active as a speaker and writer.