How then should we automate?
The promise of the Bible is that Christ, the true-human, is making us fully and finally human again. This future reality must significantly and consequently inform all human activity. However, automation in the workplace is a primary, present threat to human dignity in the West. Robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning replaced four million jobs in six 2016 swing states, all states won by President Trump. ¹
As automation continues to play a role in the American economy, several factors must be considered in order to develop a theology of technology in the workplace. Rather than accepting technological advancement as a given or attempting to block it all together, a more nuanced approach will yield a realistic, sustainable, and full-bodied theology that incorporates Christ’s design for humanity. First, we must examine what constitutes proper, God-given, human work. Second, we must assess the current status of technology’s role in the economy. Third, we must question givens and assumptions concerning human work and automation. Lastly, we must outline questions and considerations that form a holistic ethic of automation.
What Should Humane Work Look Like?
Humans have worked since the Garden of Eden. However, in this fallen world, not all human work is humane. Hannah Arendt’s lecture “Labor, Work, Action” gives language to the different types of human activity that we so easily blur together.² For Arendt, labor has neither beginning nor end, but recurs as long as life lasts. It involves the biological workings of the human body and produces goods to be consumed immediately. Work is an activity that has a definite beginning and end, a telos. Though all work involves some labor, some monotony and futility, it produces objects for use that are stable with lasting effects. If labor is an act of the body, work is an act of the hands. The primary focus of this essay is work, that is, how humans produce the goods and services that constitute our world.
Concerning the means by which we work, Arendt distinguishes between tools and fabrication. Tools are means, processes, or technologies akin to a hammer. The human masters the tool, extending human motion into something more effective. Fabrication, on the other hand, actually replaces the human self almost entirely. Machines are a prime example. Contrary to tools, “machines indeed demand that the laborer should serve them.” In fabrication through machinery, the product is the goal, and that end justifies any means necessary to produce it efficiently.³ When ends justify any means like this, economies are turned upside down, placing gold at the top and bodies at the bottom (Rev. 18:11–13). In other words, “Technology is attractive because it offers to make a better world without us needing to become better people.”
If machines truly do replace humans, we as Christians should prefer tools to fabrication. If we do not, humans will experience more alienation than humanization in their work.
Such alienation can occur at multiple levels. The most fundamental form of alienation is to be estranged from God, but experiencing alienation in work may in turn lead to a felt alienation from God and neighbor. Because of this connection, the kind of work we do truly matters.
Alienation in our work can occur in numerous ways. First, some work is alienating simply because it does not correspond to Christ’s design for human nature. Work that harms a neighbor, for example, cannot ultimately bring a sense of fulfillment and dignity since it mars the creation God charged us to tend. Second, some work is alienating because it does not align with the nature of the worker. When a job does not engage a person’s volitionality or Spirit-given gifts, the worker will likely feel more like a machine than a person, more like a means than an end.⁵ It is against this backdrop of defining humans as ends, not means, that we examine the role of technology in our economy.
Whose Jobs Are At Risk?
“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run,” asserts Carl Benedikt Frey, director of the program on the Future of Work at Oxford, “and underestimate the effect in the long run.”⁶ All indicators point to this mistake being the reality for artificial intelligence, just as it has been for many other emerging technologies in the modern era.⁷ Nevertheless, the digital age of automation — sometimes called the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ — contains some key differences. For example, whereas technological development in the 20th century demanded unskilled workers become skilled, automation in the 21st century most threatens already skilled workers.⁸ As politicians claim the middle class is disappearing, automation is working to make this a reality. The jobs safest from automation include those characterized by complex social interaction, innovative creativity, and heuristic problem solving,⁹ but this still places an estimated 47 percent of employment in the United States at risk.¹⁰ While the sky may not be falling, it is high time for the church to question certain givens in the automation discussion.
The future of automation seems to assume a number of givens. The first is that job loss is unavoidable. Examine the language of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s statement concerning artificial intelligence: Article 7, concerning work, states that the church has a responsibility to care for those who lose their jobs to automation and to encourage stakeholders “to find ways to invest in the development of human beings.”¹¹ This statement, signed by leading evangelical pastors, academicians, and technology specialists, assumes the church’s role is to accept an automated assault on the middle class while vaguely and abstractly promoting human flourishing.
A primary way the people of God can adopt workplace automation in light of the Gospel¹² is by embracing technologies that augment human work over technologies that displace it. Augmenting technologies “increase the units of a worker’s output without any displacement occurring.”¹³ If we are to work at whatever we do with our whole selves as unto the Lord (Col. 3:23), this includes pruning the thorns and thistles of chaos, disruption, and inefficiency in the tasks he has given us. We honor God by using technology as a means to fulfill the cultural mandate, the great commission, and the great commandment. We use technology as a tool, rather than as a machine, to promote dignified life among our neighbors and in all of creation. Promoting augmenting technologies requires approaching advocacy, including education reform, holistically; reducing career switching costs; removing zoning restrictions; endorsing tax credits that benefit the poor, and wage insurance for those displaced by automation; and reimagining our investment in the next generation.¹⁴ Simple retraining efforts, such as turning coal miners into data miners, are reductionistic, filled with false promises, and harmful to already disadvantaged populations.¹⁵ The issue of automation is complex, and so are the solutions.
The second false given is that leisure will one day rule human existence. The ERLC statement rightly denies that humans should indulge in “lives of pure leisure,” even if artificial intelligence and automation someday create this possibility.¹⁶ However, society is in no imminent danger of lives primarily marked by leisure.¹⁷
Such a reality is implausible for a few reasons. First, though the average workweek has fallen, certain pockets of the population are now working more. And while average leisure time has risen over the past century, much of the leisure time is due to prolonged life expectancy. Labor productivity is in fact increasing at a much higher rate than leisure activity. Second, those in communities experiencing rampant unemployment do not experience leisure, but rather “a vacuum easily filled by drugs, anger, and resentment.”¹⁸ While this reality is in part due to extreme poverty in ‘back row America,’ Chris Arnade claims that this vacuum is a cross-country problem primarily resulting from populations with nothing meaningful to do. Work does not constitute human identity, but when humane work is absent, we lose sight of our role as mediators between God and creation. While identity remains intact, dignity evaporates.
How Then Should We Automate?
How then should we automate? We must consistently question the technologies before us, establish the ethical boundaries of technology, distinguish between capitalism and consumerism, and above all, prioritize incarnational work. Questioning the givens of automation leads us to ask more questions. Neil Postman, a media ecologist, popularized five questions to consider when adopting a new technology.¹⁹
- What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?
- Whose problem is it?
- What new problems might this technological solution create?
- Which people or institutions might seriously be harmed by this technological solution?
- What sort of people or institutions acquire special political or economic power because of this technological solution?
These questions strive to treat people not as means, but as ends.
Miroslav Volf provides a helpful framework for considering how to establish ethical boundaries around new technologies. First, we must not use new technologies to rebel against God or create new idols. Second, technology should not destroy or dismember creation, but propagate its flourishing. Third, we must not believe a technologically advanced society is necessarily a better, more compassionate society. Fourth, technology must not hinder our created roles as stewards of creation by diminishing personal agency and self-expression.²⁰ Like Postman’s questions, Volf’s framework considers humans to be ends rather than means. In practice, whether you are a business owner or consumer, this can mean striving to adopt new technologies actively and thoughtfully, rather than out of fear of being left behind.
Unfortunately, society often conflates capitalism with consumerism. When the economy tanks, economists tell us to consume in order to restore human flourishing. What we consume — the telos — is uncertain and inconsequential, but the consuming is imperative.²¹ In a globalized society that demands merely the telos of shopping and spending, we place means on the backburner. Capitalist economies have lifted millions out of poverty. However, capitalism must remain under the watch of individuals, both in the marketplace and in government. They must direct the means of production, the flourishing of the middle class, and technologies being used as tools to serve rather than displace the worker. The free market is not truly free if those in power are empowered to treat people as means to an end.
Lastly, the overarching doctrine of the Incarnation must govern all conversations of work and automation. Because Christ became and remains the true-human, we must prioritize the imago dei in all of our work. If the gospel story is a promise from God to make us truly human again by the person and work of Christ, this gospel must change the way we adopt and use technology. Just as God is reconciling creation to himself, we must prioritize humanization over alienation in our work. We cannot be content with processes that benefit a select few yet mar creation. Our role as the crowning jewel of creation is to care for the earth and all its people. The fall has brought inefficiencies and disparities that we cannot fully overcome, but we can recognize and combat injustice in our decision making. The reality of Christ’s first and second coming secures a future free of fruitless labor, displacement of dignity, and dejected loneliness. When he returns, the ends will fully and finally rule over the means with equity.
Will Sorrell is from Birmingham, AL, a member of Grace Fellowship, and the Investment Solutions Manager at OneAscent, a values-based investing firm. He earned a joint-MDiv and MBA from Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School and Brock School of Business, respectively, and he is a CFA Level I candidate. He has written for numerous faith-based websites and blogs, including The Gospel Coalition. He enjoys reading, cooking, and exploring the outdoors with his wife and Labrador retriever.
¹ Paul Brandus, “One in three jobs could be lost to automation, but only one candidate’s talking about it,” MarketWatch, Sept. 23, 2019, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/one-in-three-jobs-could-be-lost-to-automation-but-only-one-candidates-talking-about-it-2019-09-23.
² Hannah Arendt, “Labor, Work, Action,” Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Faith and Thought of Hannah Arendt, ed. J.W. Bernauer (Leiden: Nijhoff, 1987), 170–175.
³ Ibid., 176.
⁴ Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 207.
⁵ Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 160–163.
⁶ Carl Benedikt Frey, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 323.
⁷ Ibid., 328–329.
⁸ Ibid., 339.
⁹ Carl Benedict Frey and Michael A. Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” (Oxford: Oxford Martin School, 2013), 40.
¹⁰ Ibid., 1.
¹¹ The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles,” April, 11, 2019, https://erlc.com/resource-library/statements/artificial-intelligence-an-evangelical-statement-of-principles.
¹² Ibid., 131. Here I’m thinking of Wells’ term “overaccept,” which he defines as “accepting in light of a larger story.” It is a means of questioning givens and reinterpreting in light of the hope of the gospel.
¹³ Carl Benedict Frey, The Technology Trap, 13.
¹⁴ Ibid., 349.
¹⁵ Campbell Robertson, “They Were Promised Coding Jobs in Appalachia. Now They Say It Was Fraud,” The New York Times, May 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/12/us/mined-minds-west-virginia-coding.html.
¹⁶ ERLC, “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles”
¹⁷ Carl Benedict Frey, The Technology Trap, 333–336.
¹⁸ Chris Arnade, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (New York: Sentinel, 2019), 284.
¹⁹ Neil Postman, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change,” https://www.student.cs.uwaterloo.ca/~cs492/papers/neil-postman–five-things.html.
²⁰ Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit, 182–183.
²¹ William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 68, 74.
Arendt, Hannah. “Labor, Work, Action.” Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Faith and Thought of Hannah Arendt. Ed. J.W. Bernauer. Leiden: Nijhoff, 1987.
Arnade, Chris. Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. New York: Sentinel, 2019.
Brandus, Paul. “One in three jobs could be lost to automation, but only one candidate’s talking about it.” MarketWatch. Sept. 23, 2019. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/one-in-three-jobs-could-be-lost-to-automation-but-only-one-candidates-talking-about-it-2019-09-23
Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles.” April, 11, 2019. https://erlc.com/resource-library/statements/artificial-intelligence-an-evangelical-statement-of-principles.
Frey, Carl Benedict. The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.
Frey, Carl Benedict and Michael A. Osborne. “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” Oxford: Oxford Martin School, 2013.
Postman, Neil. “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change.” https://www.student.cs.uwaterloo.ca/~cs492/papers/neil-postman–five-things.html.
Robertson, Campbell. “They Were Promised Coding Jobs in Appalachia. Now They Say It Was Fraud.” The New York Times. May 12, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/12/us/mined-minds-west-virginia-coding.html.
Volf, Miroslav. Work in the Spirit. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Wells, Samuel. Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004.