We’re Moving!

To all and sundry, I’m in the process of moving my blog over to http://www.jonathancamara.com. I may try to keep both blogs in sync or I might leave this one to roll with the tumbleweeds. I’m not completely sure.


Are We Designing Ourselves To Death?

Last month, I read the printed issue of WIRED on the Future Of Design, and for some reason, I felt used, alienated, and just about ready to throw my computer and all my chic electronic devices out the window. Why? because I felt I was being limited and controlled through them. The moment I turned on an electronic device and opened an app, I was being manipulated by it to click this button or type that text or swipe some direction on the screen.  I did have a goal in mind, but that goal was being modified and changed by the device I was using. Now I could put these modifications down to the limitations of the hardware and software I had available to me, but that wasn’t the whole story, at least, not according to the articles in WIRED. Some of these limitations were set intentionally by designers in order to ensure that their users would have the “best experience” in using their products. WIRED noted this and proposed a future for design in an increasingly connected world.

Three words on the front cover, and referred to in each article, boldly proclaimed their vision for design: “Invisible, Beautiful, Everywhere.” The vision proclaimed by these words make sense when you consider the current focus of modern design as spearheaded by Apple: to make a device or service which allows the user to easily achieve the goal or end that he has in mind. Using those three words, WIRED painted a picture of devices invisibly woven into our reality that help us accomplish our goals simply and easily while removing supposedly frivolous and unnecessary choices as well as limiting error.

Sounds good right?

Yet somehow, at the end of this rosy picture, I wanted to punch a designer in the face. Why? because the modern designer suddenly sounds like a puppeteer who pulls the needed strings to ensure people use his devices as he intended. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If I design a store website, I want people to enjoy that online store so that they buy more. However, the reach of design does not simply end here. Good design inherently takes into account human psychology and the user’s goal, intentionally limiting the user’s focus to those tasks needed to accomplish that goal. For what broad goal are we designing these devices that they must be available “everywhere” to us?

These articles brought to my mind the last chapter in C.S. Lewis’ book, The Abolition of Man. C.S. Lewis describes the consequences of scientific planners crafting a superman. Since the cause must be greater than it’s effect, Lewis ridicules the superman idea with the logical conclusion that a superman will be limited and less than those scientific planners who brought him into existence. In the current push to design modern electronics to be invisible, beautiful and everywhere, I see a trend to design an experience using a similarly limited and materialistic conception of man and the world that either blithely ignores or shrilly protests any actual facts which do not fit within that conception of reality.

We designers need to be careful with the broad or final goal of design and the role our modern electronic devices play within our lives, for if we design wrong we will design ourselves toward death. So let us design not only for the immediate human goal, but also for the final or eternal Creator-given goal because only then will designers make experiences which allow human beings to be what they are created to be.

Gnosticism masquerading as Catholicism

I went to a Catholic Mass several months ago that was celebrated beautifully. The priest sang the extraordinary form of the Mass, the servers all knew their duties, the congregation diligently participated. But it was during the homily that a false chord jarred the entire symphony of smells, actions, and sounds. I heard not the harmony of solid Catholic doctrine but a weak sycophantic Gnosticism masked with Catholic language.

In the previous week, I had studied Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, in which he lists the different characteristics of gnosticism. These characteristics nearly matched with the description of gnosticism given in Cardinal Ratzinger’s homilies on creation in In the Beginning. Gnostic thought creates an “Us versus Them” mentality, attacks love as unstable, does not believe in conversion of heart, attacks legitimate authority figures who do not agree with gnostic philosophy, and pushes its members to create or build some kind of salvation which is attainable here on earth.

Just a quick note before diving into the homily. My main goal is to point out the dangers of a creeping gnosticism for those who seek to be truly Catholic. I firmly believe that Gnostic thought is again permeating the Church, spurred by ignorance and reactionary thinking. I pray for this priest and his congregation because they are trying to do their best to live the faith in an increasingly hostile environment

The homily covered a then recent poll of both practicing and non-practicing Catholics in the United States, which revealed the devastating fact that most Catholics do not know or have confused ideas about major doctrines of the Catholic faith. But rather than pointing out the sorry state of Catholic religious education and calling for an evangelization of ignorant Catholics who are living pagan lives, the priest turned the poll into a whipping post for his own purposes. Blaming the results of the poll on the teachings of the Council of Vatican II, he called for his congregation to oppose ignorant Catholics and the evils they spread. He congratulated his congregation for being radically different from the “mainstream” that was presented in the poll by refusing to “get with the times” concerning dress, by eating organic foods, and by avoiding pharmaceutical drugs. Looking at the recent election of Pope Francis, and the “mainstream” adulation of his actions and speeches, he questioned whether the line of good popes had ended (not that those after Vatican II were that wonderful). He went so far as to cast doubt upon papal infallibility as he connected the possibility of a change in discipline so that priests could marry, to a possible change in doctrine which would allow women priests. He criticized the use of the word “Love” in connection with such “mainstream catholics”, insisting that all those in the room knew better. Finally, Citing the biblical verse that novelty tickles the ears of the foolish, he launched an all out attack upon the term “New Evangelization.”  The “New Evangelization,” as he saw it, was just an excuse to create a bunch of noise in order to promote “Love,” when what the Church really needed, as he saw it, was to kick out all the bad apples. He finally ended his sermon, with two things: First, that all these problems were due to Vatican II, and second, that all those listening to him should use their Liberty of Conscience and reject all this nonsense.

I’ll admit, I had a hard time stomaching all of this, and if we had been in a seminar rather than at Mass, I probably would have called him out on much of what he said. There was and still is a possibility that upon clarification of some of his points, I would realize that I had understood him all wrong, but I never got the opportunity to talk with him afterwards.

I will continue to pray for him. He was a truly passionate man, and I know he was trying to be a good Catholic and fulfill his vocation. If he ever reads this post, I hope he contacts me in case I understood him wrong. And to you, gentle reader, beware of the Gnostic, for his talk does attract those itchy ears. But do not kick him out, engage him in dialogue, and be willing to walk along his road, for then you might see how to help him out of his discordant echo chamber.

Unix and Obamacare

I was working on my Linux machine and thinking about the required insurance mandated in Obamacare when it hit me. Why don’t large companies split themselves up into smaller companies of less than 50 people in order to avoid having to pay insurance for their employees? Now this may be practically impossible but humor me for this article.

In Unix-based operating systems, the real power is found on the command line, where you chain together small programs in order to accomplish complex tasks. It looks something like this:

> # put list of video devices into a file
> lspci | grep VGA > video_devices.log

In this little shell script “lspci” lists all the devices connected to the PCI bus in your computer. This list is searched by “grep” for all lines with “VGA” and those lines are put into the file “video_devices.log”. Now, while this is a very simple shell script, the flexibility and power that is present is enormous. Each program is small, does one thing well, and is able to communicate to each of the other programs the information that they need in order to fulfill their function.  Why should a company not do the same thing?

To put this into better perspective for business owners, the idea would be for the different functions of the company to be split off into different smaller companies rather than keeping everything under one roof. This isn’t very different from what some companies to today, with IT and human resources being outsourced to different companies.  Let’s say I were to take a product from a large technology company like Google (I know there’s probably no chance that Google will do this, but come on, work with me here.) and spin off of Google a group of different small companies with less than 50 people on staff to work on this product. One company could work on the product’s design, another on developing it, a third on testing it.  Each reporting to the others, like a bunch of Unix programs, working together to help form one fantastic product. if one design company isn’t enough, then bring in another company to help work with the product.

Now, this is probably a logistics nightmare, especially if communication broke down between two companies and, because of “corporate secrets” and the current patent system, this kind of arrangement might well be untenable, but this kind of arrangement, if those communication kinks were worked out, would allow companies to be more flexible, increase competition, and possible even create jobs as more employees are needed in order to help keep the different businesses running. It might be ridiculous to have, say, 10 different software development companies working on a single project, but, if you look at the model that has been formed by the Open Source Community, there is a way for such cooperation to happen.

What do you think, Internet?

The Proper Use of Technology: Knowledge vs. Love

The development and use of technology should be founded upon a philosophy which not only agrees with the findings of science and known facts about man, but also helps to explain them. The Gnostic philosophy that underlies the technocratic goals for technological advancement sees man as a mere pattern of information, destined in the near future to build a machine that will surpass the human pattern, allowing the next step in the chain of evolution to occur. This philosophy fails because it ignores any attempt to explain man’s origin, rejects love, the mystery of suffering, and substitutionary redemption, and focuses on controlling life and the world through knowledge. Love appears too insecure a foundation because it is not absolutely certain, and makes the person absolutely dependent. To the Gnostic technocrat, this dependence is burdensome, and only by attempting to achieve god-like power and skill to create a new world can “salvation” be attained. On the other hand, the Christian philosophy sees man as being created by God in His own image and likeness. This philosophy succeeds because it not only gives a description of the origin of man, but also allows for the very rational scientific progress upon which the technocrats attempt to base their philosophy. Man, because he is created, is dependent, but this dependence takes the form of love that essentially says, “I want you to be.” This kind of love transforms dependence into freedom. The attempt to remove man’s inherent dependence rejects the love that brought him into existence and the freedom which that love gives him. The fact of creation also gives man the end of achieve union with his Creator, which means that he will become God-like through the love of God. Technology, therefore,would be better developed and used if it helped man achieve his final end as stated by the Christian philosophy.


The Proper Use of Technology: Luddites

In the final argument of Joseph Ratzinger from the last post, many people might start claiming that technology is evil. The fact that technology seems to lead to a breakdown in man’s moral nature and a push toward totalitarian control often leads some people to the conclusion that technology should be either rejected or treated as a necessary evil. This rejection is present in certain segments of the environmentalist movement and is often seen in the push for organic foods. This rejection and resentment of technology, however, eventually becomes a resentment against humans and especially human freedom since that freedom allowed the development of technology. This resentment often leads to the idea that man is diseased by his mind and its freedom. But the view of man as presented earlier by Joseph Ratzinger, sees this rejection of man’s reason as another way of denying man’s nature. Technology, as it is not man’s salvation nor man’s bane, and yet can be used for either, must be a mere tool which man uses. This means that technology does not form it’s own philosophy, but rather it is philosophy that determines the development and use of technology.

The next post will conclude this series of posts, and will examine which philosophical foundation the development and proper use of technology should be based.