The Railing Principle

railing principle final

Who was that guy—that first guy who thought, “I’m going to use my roof as a second floor”? When did it occur to him that the ceiling over his head could become a new floor beneath his feet? Was he lying in bed in the pre-dawn? Was he staring up at the ceiling with his arm underneath his head? Whatever the case was, you can bet that when the insight dawned on him, he couldn’t wait to make it so.

And after he’d built a ladder and climbed up to the roof, what did his neighbors say? Did they emerge from their own homes, hands shading their eyes, wondering what he was up to this time? Yet, when his innovation really began to benefit him, how many others started installing their own ladders?

And after people all over the village had begun waving to one another from their rooftops, who was the first to fall and injure themselves, or worse yet, fall and die?

Every technological innovation has benefits and consequences. The benefits convince us to adopt it. But the consequences often come to light only later.

When you build a new house, you must build a railing around the edge of its flat roof. That way you will not be considered guilty of murder if someone falls from the roof.

Deuteronomy 22:8

This building code, part of the Jewish law, is one of the earliest recorded in human history. In Bible times, many homes had flat roofs which served as second stories. People could work or bathe up there. (Remember Bathsheba?) But with this innovation came an inherent danger: falling off. So, God included in his laws a practical requirement: railings. Without them, homeowners could be prosecuted for negligence and found guilty of murder.

For technologists, this Biblical law commends itself. It offers a principle that can guide ethical innovation. After all, homes were and are technological. Homebuilders—technologists in their day—were commanded to install railings. These railings couldn’t stop every disaster, but they provided reasonable preventative measures. In the same way, every technologist today should be installing railings around his or her innovative devices.

Car manufacturers have developed “railings,” installing seat belts and airbags. Toy manufacturers have developed “railings” by labeling age ranges and choking hazards. Medicine bottles have safety caps.

Of course, installing “railings” means that technologists must grasp the dangers associated with their devices, but first they must truly believe it has inherent dangers in the first place. For a flat roof or a fast car or a small toy, the dangers are obvious. But the complexities of modern technologies obscure the dangers. What are the dangers for pharmaceutical drugs, smartphones, brain-computer interfaces, or satellites? Do we know what “railings” we need to put up? We expend immense amounts of brainpower creating new technologies; are the “railings” really beyond our powers of creative thinking? Of course not. But many businesses don’t see the value identifying the dangers. In fact, it seems threatening to many of them, but there’s a valuable benefit to installing railings around new technologies.

I recently visited the Grand Canyon. In one spot where there were no railings, we cautiously approached the edge. In another place that had railings, we were able to fearlessly lean out over the edge. Far from restricting us, the railing allowed us to experience the Grand Canyon more fully. Likewise, innovative companies who identify the dangers of their product and install railings can make their devices even more useful. And they can win the loyalty of customers. Imagine driving across a bridge without railings. You’d have a single lane of cars puttering across. Traffic would slow down. Some would refuse to cross at all. But because the railings are there, more people are willing and able to use the bridge. The same is true for every technology that comes with railings installed.

Deuteronomy’s railing principle also reminds us that legislation is often needed to protect people from the dangers of new technologies. Technology always outpaces the laws governing it. Take 3D printing as an example, which debuted last spring and fast caused a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill when a 3D gun was printed and fired. The 3D-printed handgun capsizes society in a way that individuals on their own cannot rectify. Or take cell phones. Starting in 2014, Illinois now requires all drivers to use hands-free technology on the road. Only through legislative policy can a society manage and mitigate the dangers of a given technology. Unrestricted innovation would leave homes everywhere devoid of certain safety regulations and thousands of people at risk of falling. It’s in our best interest to embrace thoughtful dialogue with every new technology and consider legislative action where we need it.

If you’re creating new technologies—or even using old ones—what does “falling off the roof” mean for your device? Only by first defining “falling” will you be able to install “railings.” So what does falling look like with your device, and how can you install a railing to protect the people who use it? How can you apply the railing principle to your innovations?

(Photo Credit: Joe/Flickr)

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About the Contributor

Adam Graber

Adam Graber
Adam Graber is an editor at Tyndale House Publishers. He has written for Catapult Magazine and the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture. He blogs at and on Twitter @AdamGraber


  1. Jeff Burt says:

    A thoughtful use of an old testament verse, and a rare compliment to those agencies that enforce safety to provide for a more thorough experience, if not caught as adventurous and thrilling (and thrill-seekers always can find an adrenaline rush). Thank you for a common sense and Biblical reasoning.

    • Benjamin Robertson says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jeff. I would have never thought to apply that verse to the work of technologists today. I think it’s a great, fresh starting point for thinking biblically about technology.

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