How Controlling a Turtle Gave Me a Superiority Complex

What a unique joy to control a turtle on a screen leaving behind a design of your making. I’d never thought about controlling a turtle before. I certainly never imagined one as the brush for my masterpiece. Then came LOGO: the graphics programming language pre-installed on my Apple II. As a young boy, not only could I paint a design on my screen, I could command a machine to do it for me. I loved it.

In a previous post, we saw how language become man’s first technology. Adam named the animals, giving meaning to words and creating the possibility for relationship. From that beginning, the development of language has flourished. The leading authority on world languages estimates over 7000 spoken languages in use today. Humans love to create language.

But in the middle of the 20th century, a new kind of language emerged, different from any that preceded it. FORTRAN, the first commercially available programming language, allowed engineers to write words that controlled computers. Today, hundreds of different computer languages allow various types of machine control. Spoken languages are dying. But with the proliferation of programming languages, we may soon have more ways to speak to machines than other people.

Is there a theology behind programming languages? Does the first creation of language in the Bible offer some clues?

The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.  — Genesis 2:20

The language here is personal. The ancient Hebrew reads more literally, “Adam called names to all livestock…“. This is the kind of language that establishes and develops intimate relationship. From the earliest days, language has allowed a personal connection.

But FORTRAN was different. Our computer programming languages are not designed to promote intimacy; they enable control. They are precise, predictable, structured, and impersonal. For centuries, humankind used language to know each other. But this new kind of language bends us toward control instead of intimacy.

Yet I recall my Apple II with a fondness not unlike I have towards my childhood friends. Did I have a relationship with that machine? Did LOGO allow me to relate to the computer?

The machine obeyed my commands. Most of the time. When it didn’t, I was usually able to figure out the cause of the problem and find a solution. Any failure of obedience was most often my own fault. Fix my mistake and the system returned to a state of obedience.

This is the kind of control we want over our world. Programming languages appeal to us because they allow complete control. Master the language, and you master the machine. But what kind of a relationship is that?

What happens if I apply this kind of language-as-a-means-of-absolute-control to my human relationships? Do I start to view others as machines to control rather than people to know? Do people begin to exist only for my purposes?

One of the worst forms of this occurs through online pornography. Sexually explicit images offer a warped relationship. It is idealized, self-centered, and serves as an alternative to reality. The relationship is false: not a personal connection between two entities but a one-way submission to the whims of the user. With pornography, you have absolute control over another. This kind of power and control is impossible in the real world with real people.

Comparing programming languages to sexual fantasy may seem drastic. But consider the parallels. One moment I am using a machine to control and manipulate an image of my creation. In the next, I am using a machine to control and manipulate an image of another person.

Pornography demonstrates the desire for control taken to an unhealthy extreme. But we’ve already acknowledged our biblical calling to exert control over our creation. God himself taught us to use language to make things happen. The first recorded language was a kind of instruction set issued by God to bring order out of chaos. Who knows? Maybe God spoke his creation into existence using FORTRAN?

Even though I’m (half-)joking about God using FORTRAN, the connection between God and programming languages is actually not that far-fetched. A friend of mine, Doug Hewitt, makes a compelling case that programming languages are the best analogy for understanding the nature of God. God often uses familiar analogies to explain himself. Could computer code give us spiritual insight into God’s nature?

After all, Jesus described himself as “logos.” Two thousand years later, a language from the same root word sent a turtle drawing across my screen. Is there a connection?

Perhaps God speaks with a similar kind of authority as we are able to have in our programming languages. God speaks with absolute authority over his animate creation. We have created a language of absolute authority over our own inanimate creation. Is there a difference?

We sometimes worry about our inanimate creation becoming animate. What if our computers develop free will and rebel against us? We might also worry about our animate peers becoming, at least in our eyes, inanimate.

A few days ago, I commanded my machine, “Alexa, turn off the family room lights.” Immediately afterward, I followed up with a command to my son. “Silas, turn off the hall light.”

My family laughed at his response, offered in a computer voice tone, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can help you with that.” We laughed because we knew something ought to be different in the way I speak to my machine and my son. But could we put our finger on what exactly that difference was?

More importantly, has programming computers conditioned me to program my son? Are we in danger of turning the language of our relationships into an instruction set to be followed? Does our love for control lead us to forget others’ very humanity?

How do we protect ourselves from the programmification of our personal language? How do I keep myself from seeing my children, co-workers, and peers in the same category as my phone assistant, smart home speakers, and internet-enabled devices? A recent article on Slate identifies this very problem: I Don’t Date Men Who Yell At Alexa.

Is this a technology problem? A cultural problem? A relational problem?

Perhaps the solution comes through language as well. Adam began by calling out names to the animals. Then he called to his spouse. Finally, humans used language to address God.

At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD.   — Genesis 4:26

Adam’s grandchildren introduced a new use of language. Man addressed his God. So began the language of worship.

Throughout the Bible, words declare God’s greatness, submit to his authority, and testify to his power. Our programming language has given us a tool to speak to our creation with absolute authority. Could the language of submissive worship to our Creator help us maintain the humility we need to speak to each other with respect?

Perhaps worship can balance out controlling our creation with submitting to our sovereign. Maybe that helps us to see each other as equals. When we declare the greatness of God, something within us changes as we remember our place in the world.

I stand above my computer, but standing below God helps me to stand alongside others.

Maybe as I grow in my worship, I’ll grow in my relationships. I can command Alexa; declare God as my King; and ask nicely for my son to help me out.

Father to five; husband to one; helping Christians engage thoughtfully as they follow Jesus Christ.

Pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, CA since 2007. Graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for Oracle Corporation as a Senior Product Manager designing software solutions.

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