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Becoming more human

I learned about a new website recently. The site determined, well, how likely it is that a robot will take your job. It picked up a lot of attention, and lots of people typed their career into the search engine to see if they were about to be replaced. Cashiers have a 97 percent chance of being replaced; pastors, on the other hand, have a 0 percent chance. Despite the fact that Christianity won’t be replaced by Robotology any time soon, I’m still concerned about the changes technology is causing in the employment landscape of the U.S. Where will this spread of automation take us?

It’s an old question, I know. The printing press perhaps most closely mirrored the dawn of the information age, and I’m sure it put countless scribes and copyists out of work. It did, however, bring incredible increases in wealth and prosperity (as measured by increases in city size). And though there are calligraphers and others who make their living by writing things out by hand, our economy doesn’t seem to miss the copyist industry very much.

The Industrial Revolution, like the advent of the printing press, also brought wealth and prosperity, but we have more extensive records of the struggles it caused. As more and more jobs were replaced by machines throughout the 20th century, individuals suffered as they lost work. People bemoaned the loss of traditional work – and with it, potentially, traditional values. The tale of John Henry comes to mind. But overall, the U.S. got wealthier.

As we move further into the age of the microprocessor and the internet, the pace of this automation seems to be increasing. So what lies at the end? Maybe a situation like Star Trek, where money no longer exists and you can have Earl Grey tea whenever you want just by telling a computer to make it for you. Maybe we’re heading towards a scenario like the “Hunger Games,” where only a chosen few can enjoy the benefits of technology. Hundreds of great science fiction novels explore this topic, providing hundreds of different views on where we’re headed, but they mostly center on the question of how we remain human in the midst of these great advances. And what it means to be human is, to me, a theological question.

If the main purpose of humanity is to glorify and enjoy God forever, we should care about both our own ability to enjoy God’s blessings, and the ability of others to do the same. This means people need to have basic physical needs met as well as basic emotional and spiritual needs. Imagine a future where the 10 most common jobs are replaced by automated systems. That’s about 30 million jobs, almost one out of every five people (17.7 percent) currently working (for reference, the unemployment rate in September 2017 was 4.2 percent, or 6.8 million people). The average American will get more goods and services for a cheaper rate because of the increase in productivity and the decrease in labor costs – but for those 30 million people, life gets much worse. We as a society may choose to retrain them for different jobs, subsidize their employment, support them with some kind of welfare benefits, or offer some other solution someone smarter than me has come up with. The solution we choose, though, should take into account that these are humans who have needs beyond food, water and money.

As a church, we have been tasked with loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. This means that even as the economy grinds its gears to create more wealth, we should be working with different goals in mind. We have to care for the people who are left behind, work together to find meaning in the lives God has given us and struggle for a society that is more just, loving, moral and – dare I say it? – righteous (Amos 5:24). There has to be more to life than creating more wealth, and I believe most people know this deep down. For millennia, people have sought meaning together in churches by searching for God, grasping at theology. Our work, as the people of God, should focus now more than ever on leading each other into God’s presence so that, even as our jobs are replaced by robots, we can ourselves become more human.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.