Review: A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers

A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers, Ethan Brue, Derek C Schuurman, and Steven M. Vanderleest. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: Explores in practical terms the intersection of faith and technology in areas of design norms and ethics and how technology might serve the common good.

It is common in Christian higher education circles to discuss the intersection of faith and learning. Often, this is highly abstract and conceptual and in fields like engineering, computer science, and design, these discussions seem far removed from the technical problems those trained in these fields are trying to solve. The three authors of this work have worked both in industry and academia and bring their experience together with a well-informed faith to offer a work that digs into the specifics of how Christian faith informs design, ethics, and the uses technology serves for the common good. They articulate what they are trying to do and why they call it a “field guide” in their Preface:

“The vision for this book is to provide a guide for Christian engineers and others working with technology to responsibly navigate today’s technological terrain. A field guide is a resource that helps the reader identify things (usually plants or animals) in their natural environment. We hope this book serves as a field guide interested in engineering and technology to identify and discern technology and its cultural environment. Furthermore, since all readers will be users of technology, and many will be practitioners, this book provides some principles and advice that we hope will be helpful to Christians who wish to be faithful and honor God in the technological aspects of their lives.”

The authors begin with the underlying hopes that inspired people like the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, and Samuel Morse and make the connection between our dreams and hope in a sovereign God who makes all things new. They root this vision in the early chapters of Genesis, a skillful creator who works iteratively to “very good” design standards, who entrusts his creatures with responsible caring and imitating the creator in their care (we were technologists from the start!), who accept deceptively marketed fruit in disobedience to their mandate, introducing futility into work and estrangement into relations, leading to a long term project of redemption and restoration.

From theological foundations, the authors focus on the responsibility of engineers, beginning with the example of New York’s Robert Moses who designed bridges with low clearances to prevent the poor from riding busses to the parks Moses designed. It was not a mere fluke of neutral bridge design but a deliberately racist and classist decision. They go on the puncture a number of myths about design neutrality, the most chilling of which was the employment of IBM engineers in the 1930’s to develop calculating devices allowing the complex control of a train system shipping millions to the camps, even after they knew how their work was being used. They point out failures of engineering responsibility in the collapse of Hyatt Regency walkways and exploding gas tanks on Ford Pintos. Beyond the failures is the positive responsibility of Christians to design technology for shalom, the wholeness and flourishing of those served by that technology.

Christian principles come to bear throughout the design process. The field guide proposes “design norms” that inform the creation and evaluation of technology, detailing analytical, cultural, clarity, social, stewardship, harmony, justice, caring, and faithfulness norms. They recognize that there might be tradeoffs between norms, the place where theologically informed creativity comes into play. They discuss different system of ethics, and the normative standards of the field, and then challenge Christians to an ethics that go beyond these in the pursuit of love of neighbor, care for the creation, and justice.

Engineers need to be aware of the hubris of building towers of Babel, monuments to human autonomy and pride, particularly in a technicism that thinks all human problems are reducible to technical solutions. History can teach us and, in one of the most illuminating chapters, they use the example of electric vehicles, which actually preceded internal combustion engine powered vehicles. They show all the misconceptions about why this technology failed and our flawed ideas about progress that may actually have been regressive. Looking to futurist ideas is also instructive as Christians thread a way between the unbounded optimism of movements like transhumanism and technological pessimism to view technology as a gift whose use we rehearse for good as we anticipate the new creation.

Many Christians struggle with whether to leave off their technology to pursue the mission of Jesus. The authors offer a strong argument for how God may be honored in technological fields. The book then concludes with a fictional exchange of emails between a professor and former student in industry that pull together and apply the different themes of the field guide.

I appreciate the “heavy lifting” these authors have done to identify specific issues of responsibility, design norms, ethical issues, and their thoughtfulness about the uses of technology. I think of many students with whom I wish I’d had the opportunity to discuss this book (a prospect enhanced by the discussion guide that is included with the book). This is quite simply the most useful book I’ve come across for those in technological fields about how they may do their work Christianly. The combination of principles, case studies, and well-known examples make this highly accessible. This will be my “go to” field guide to recommend in the future for engineers and designers.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2022 | Bob on Books

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