In The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, Roger Forsgren writes “The Architectureof Evil,” in which he reflects on the life and work of Albert Speer. Speer was the engineer, the architect that built the impressive structures, buildings and monuments from which Hitler launched the Nazi cause.
Albert Speer did not, as far as any historians know, personally design any death chambers, nor did he personally kill another human being. But Speer did use his brilliant technical expertise and talents to enable the war efforts of the most evil regime in history, allowing it to murder millions of human beings. But even as we condemn him, we must ask—especially we engineers and technicians—is Speer so different from us? How many of us would be willing to compartmentalize our emotions, suppress our consciences, almost to sell our souls, for the opportunity to work on the grand projects that Speer was involved in? How many of us are so focused on solving a technical problem that we fail to contemplate where that solution might lead?
To many engineers, Speer and his experiences during the war may seem irrelevant today. But although there seems to be little chance (we hope) of a highly industrialized power again waging a war of world conquest, the essential questions that Speer faced still pertain to the work of many engineers today. You may be an engineer sitting in front of a computer-aided design screen, creating a seemingly benign component that will become part of some sophisticated weapons system that will be sold to unknown people in a far-off land. You may be a computer security researcher, or a virologist, and discover some new potential weapon or security vulnerability, and have to decide how to make the information public to shield against such attacks, but without helping those who would launch them. Or you may design automobile parts, and be faced with a compromise between saving your company production costs and protecting the lives of customers.
These are good issues. To be seduced by the magnitude of a project so that we begin to make a series of tiny compromises is easy, and the danger involved can seem small enough to not count. Having a worldview rigorous enough to sustain the necessary reflection and a community lively enough to nourish such reflection is essential for all of us. All of us live out our vocations within an ethical context because we live in God’s world and bear his image.
There is another danger, one that we all face. It is to so pursue excellence in our work, to so bury ourselves in the demands of our vocation that we get lost in the details until we no longer are committed to anything larger. This is a creeping danger, a slow process, not something that suddenly arrives with trumpets blaring. Still when Work and Vocation are elevated to the status of idolatry, they are cruel masters. If excellence in architecture is capturing in design the vision and purpose of a structure, Speer achieved a rare and brilliant excellence. But at a horrific cost.
It might be said that Speer exemplifies what happens when a technical person becomes too absorbed in his work. Speer claimed at his trial that he was simply doing what nearly any other architect would have done; he was too busy “studying far into the night” to even discuss the political world exploding all around him, too lacking in the ability to think discriminately and critically, and so he found himself “unable to deal with the arguments” of his cohorts, and instead just went along. Perhaps it is the inherent nature of the technical disciplines that brings their practitioners to view the world with a practical eye, to possess a preoccupation with efficiency and order—even to the point of ignoring the humane values of dignity and justice. These are characteristics that will surely sound familiar, to some extent, to those who have worked with engineers, even if in far less sinister contexts.
The difficulty with this is that few of us are like Speer: we are not engineers working on great projects. We are ordinary people working on ordinary things. The danger here is to assume our smallness automatically shields us from hard choices, or that our hard choices do not matter so much because they are small. As Francis Schaeffer was fond of saying, in God’s economy there are no small people and no small places. The children of God are to pursue their callings, their work, their vocation with excellence—and that cannot be accomplished unless our pursuit is shaped by a growing discernment that brings all of our life consciously under the Lordship of Christ.
Source: “Evil’s Architect,” on The Dish (25 Nov 2012 08:07 AM)