Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Power Tools Gone Wrong

Did you know the earliest tool discovered by archaeologists dates back at least 2.6 million years and was discovered in Ethiopia?  Humans aren't alone in our ability to use tools.  Monkeys, apes, elephants, birds, and otters are all capable of using tools.  Humans aren't even alone in our ability to make tools.  Zoologists have observed birds and apes actually making them!  Good news, though.  Humans are unique in their use of tools to make other tools.  So we're still special.  Anyway, archaeologists have come to understand that the tools of a people can actually tell you a lot about them, so they've started paying a lot more attention to tools and their functions.

Image result for bird tools
Alright, who put this metric stick in
my American Standard toolbox?
There's no question that the development of tools shapes the way a civilization lives.  We've even divided prehistory into periods based on the materials used to make tools: the stone age, the bronze age, and the iron age.  For better or worse it has often been the case that the civilization with the most advanced tools has been able to overpower and conquer civilizations with less advanced tools.  It seems the desire for more than we have is hard-wired into us.

So there's a real "macrosense" (call Webster) in which the development of tools has guided the development of the human race.  But there's also a "microsense."  By that I mean that in addition to shaping the long arcs of history, tools have profound impact on the day-to-day existence of each person who comes into contact with them.

That seems painfully obvious, and I'm sorry.  But bear with me for a moment.  Tools are tools because they enable us to do something we couldn't otherwise do (or enable us to do something at a scale or pace we couldn't otherwise).  Sure, I could eventually scrape all the meat off a bear-hide with my fingernails...eventually.  But how much more quickly, efficiently, and completely can I do that given the proper tool (and the knowledge of how to use it, of course)?

Image result for bear hide
When I was a boy, we scraped
hides with our fingernails, and we liked it,
and we walked to school up hill in the snow.
Because of that efficiency, tools do something I would have sworn is impossible.  Tools actually give us more time.  And we love it when they do.  Consider the washing machine. 

Image result for washing machine early
An *old* washing machine.
Once upon a time we washed clothes by hand using crude soap and rocks.  What a pain.  Then came the washboard and ringer.  Then a machine with a ringer on top.  Then an electric machine.  Then a computer controlled machine.  I'll admit that's an oversimplification of the process, but basically over time we improved washing machines so they would do more of the work without the need for our intervention.  We still have fairly old machines (19 years old, give or take), but at this point I take a load in, push a couple of buttons, move it to the dryer after a while, and then take the stuff out and fold it or hang it up.  [Editor's note: some clothes need to be hung up instead of dried, and some clothes can't be washed in this manner at all.  Those clothes need to be burned.]

This is part of the problem with returning to the "good old days."  People think about the ways in which things were simpler, and they were.  But they forget all about the ways in which things were harder.  When I moved to Atlanta, I had no GPS.  I carried a book in my truck that contained detailed maps of the entire city so I could get around!  It was a simpler time...I had no children and no full-time job.  It was Lisa and me and the world was our oyster.  Would I enjoy some of that freedom?  Sure.  But if  you tell me I have to check my smartphone at the door...wait a second.  Well, at least we'd still have our washer and dryer...

The development of the tools that are appliances played a big part in making it possible for women to work outside the home because of how much more quickly things could get done.  Things you used to have to pay to have someone do for you if you didn't do it yourself, now you can buy a machine that does it for you.  Lately, with automation, you don't even have to do anything.  You plug in a charger and punch a button.  Voila!  Your floor is automatically swept while you sleep or go to work.

Image result for cat roomba
And it will even play with your pets for you!
The problem with technology, though, is that at some point it begins to control us in ways we didn't imagine.  My favorite example of this is washing towels.  Back when we used crude soap and bashed our clothes on rocks to clean them, do you suppose we washed towels after every use?  Or how about when we were using washboards and ringers and line drying everything?  Heck no, man!  You'd need to use the towel a time or two just to get the stiffness out of it from hanging it on the line.  And technically you were clean when you dried off anyway, right?  The first time I ever experienced single use towels was when I lived with my grandmother, and I thought it was legitimately crazy.  But now, with apologies to the environment, we wash our towels after every use because there isn't much on earth as pleasant as a fresh towel after a hot shower.

The washer...has changed our behavior.  It's basically driving us around like a cat on a Roomba.

Don't even get me started on smartphones.  We have more computing power in our hands than they did when they landed guys on the moon.  WAY more.  You want to know when the Razorbacks are going to lose their next football game?  I can tell you in about 15 seconds.  You want to know how to get from here to Saskatoon?  I gotcha, and I can also help you apply for your passport while we're at it.  The smartphone is one of the most powerful tools...ever...because it allows us to do so much with so little effort.

There is, of course, a dark side when the phones begin to control us.  Because that's the thing about power tools.  They are dangerous when they are not handled carefully.  Get your fingers too close to the blade and you can ruin your entire life.  Because you cut off a few fingers, or you post an inappropriate picture that you can never, ever take back down or you send a reflexive text to a friend...or someone who was your friend until they read that text.  All of a sudden this thing that is supposed to help us has the exact opposite effect.

It's not that technology is bad.  Technology is GOOD.  But we have to use it carefully because the more powerful the tool, the more damage it can cause.

Image result for power tool gone wrong
What could possibly go wrong?
Which brings me to something you might not think of as a tool.  It's a building, and I'm sitting in it right now.  The church.  We call it the church, but it really isn't the church at all.  The people who come in and out, they are the church.  The building and everything in it, all the stuff, those are just tools for the church to use.  We have a lovely piano and organ, and I so enjoy playing them, but they are not the music.  The music happens on Wednesday when 40 or 50 singers get together and create it as only a choir can.  We have a lovely space in which to worship.  Conveniently heated and cooled and dry on a rainy day.  But like most tools and technology, if we aren't careful, the building can come to control us.  Tending to its needs can become more important than the very reason it was built in the first place...to house the church. 

This has already happened, of course.

And it's not just the building.  It's the institution itself.  There has been a huge upheaval in the United Methodist Church as they struggle with words and paragraphs and policies and procedures.  Plans and exits.  And it has caused so much pain for so many.  And so much anger.  Honestly I'm not sure if anything has ever done so much to separate us from our call as Christians, which Jesus Himself summed up this way: Love God and love neighbor.  The vast amounts of money and property wrapped up in the decisions that need to be made have deafened the CHURCH to the call of Christ, and it's sad to watch that unfold.  It seems like it's all about the stuff now.

But...good news.  Christ was outright killed 2000 years ago, and yet He lives on, along with His church.  Since the very beginning, people tried to extinguish the message of love, and each time they thought they had succeeded, they found out they were profoundly wrong and weak in the face of that which is God in our world: the love of God and neighbor.

As I type, votes are being taken.  I don't know what will happen.  But I know this.  You can take this building and everything in it.  You can kick me out and hang up no trespassing signs.  But you cannot make me stop answering Christ's call to love people.  One way or another, I will make music with the body of Christ as we worship together a God of unbounded love.  After all, my commitment is to God and to sharing God's love.  The church is a tool.

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