Coding for Christ?

While I was an academic astronomer, I probably spent most of my time not peering through a telescope, but typing away at a computer, wondering why my code didn’t work. Now, computer software wasn’t my area of research, so I didn’t give much attention to it from a Christian perspective. But is there a Christian approach to writing computer software? Should we be “coding for Christ”?

In preparation for this post, I read an excellent little book on this topic: Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology by Derek C. Schuurman, who is Professor of Computer Science at Redeemer University College, Ontario, Canada. Schuurman begins by posing the question, “What does my faith have to do with my work as an electrical engineer?” The rest of the book attempts to sketch out an answer, and it contains plenty of helpful insights for those of us who spend our time writing computer code. I’d like to share a few of them here.

First is the observation that technology is not neutral. True, there is a lot of scope for using technology for good purposes or for bad, but that is not the whole story. Technology inevitably makes certain things easier, and also makes certain things more difficult. “[T]echnological objects are biased toward certain uses, which in turn bias the user in particular ways” (p. 15). Schuurman quotes John Culkin: “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us” (p. 16).

The specific bias connected with computer technology is this: a computer “tends to emphasize speed and the abstraction and quantification of things” (p. 17). This can lead to a certain kind of reductionism. Whenever we make the decision to use a computer to solve a certain problem, we will tend to reduce things to their quantifiable dimensions.

(I wonder whether this emphasis on computing in academic research has contributed to an obsession with measuring things? There are plenty of areas of research where the funding is almost exclusively directed towards projects that quantify things, and measure them in purely numerical terms. Are we missing out on something?)

But how can we use computers in a specifically Christian way? Schuurman answers this question by focusing on several aspects of the multifaceted world God has created. (See a previous post for an introduction to these “aspects”.) Here are some examples:

A concern for the social aspect will lead you to consider other people who will be using your code. “Even in the process of writing computer code, programmers should strive to produce hospitable code that is mindful of those who may need to read, maintain, modify or use the code in the future” (p. 85).

The aesthetic aspect is reflected in “the sheer joy of making things” (p. 37). “Indeed, there can be delight in writing a beautiful program” (p. 91).

The ethical aspect “deals with sowing love and care for our neighbor” (p. 98). When you’ve written some code, and it does something useful, why not put it on GitHub and make it available to everyone?

It can be helpful to think about the tools we use in the course of our research, as well as the content of the research itself. If our tools are not neutral, then how do the tools we use influence our research?

Comments

Great stuff Anthony. I really enjoyed reading this. Incidentally I am working on a course for a big church in Harrogate which aims to help people think Christianly about their jobs and work life and I’d like to include computer programmers in this so your review of this book is timely and helpful. I intend to cover accountancy, plastering, french teaching, opera singing and nursing as well. Thanks for this.

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