By Caleb Strom
Since the beginning of the human genus about 2.5 million years ago, we have used tools to extend the control of nature beyond our physical bodies. I cannot speak for other religious traditions, but our technological nature has long been considered to reflect the nature of God as creator in the Christian tradition. If, then, human technology is an expression of the Imago Dei, then what values should true technological progress encourage?
Speaking from a Christian perspective, if Jesus embodied love and justice, then true technological progress would be measured by technological innovation that creates a civilization based on love and justice and that liberates humanity from sickness, want, and drudgery. Humans could focus on being co-creators, caring for creation and continuing the creator's work.
The 20th century began with horse-drawn carriages and ended with the space shuttle.This is a reflection of Moore’s Law of accelerating returns. In the first quarter of the 21st century, human civilization is on the verge of developing human-level artificial intelligence, the ability to redesign the human genome, planet-scale geo-engineering, and possibly even nuclear fusion. The technological growth curve has led to advances in medicine, elimination of hunger, disease, and increased access to physical goods for billions of people. This process is sometimes referred to as technological development and is often discussed in tandem with economic development.
Technological development has been driven by and is driving economic development, which is usually quantified as the gradual increase in GDP, though other factors that take into account social welfare have been more recently included. In the 20th century, technology produced evermore consumer products. Today, technology is primarily an engine to accumulate capital for large companies, thus driving an ecological crisis that promotes consumption levels that push up against planetary limits, a social-media-induced mental health crisis, and reinforcement of unjust practices in the Global South, such as the use of conflict minerals in making electronics.
Our forebears thought that technology would free us for leisure and joy, but the extra time created by technological development tends to get filled by either more work or consumption of goods and digital media. Instead of technology freeing us from sickness, want, and drudgery so that we can all become philosophers, artists, poets, space explorers, archaeologists, and spend more time building human relationships and in nature, it has made us instruments of profit in the service of the billionaire class. This is true whether we are working long hours at the office, addicted to scrolling through social media so that social media platforms can profit from advertisements, or slaving away literally in a mine so that more electronics can be produced and advertised to consumers who may or may not actually need them. Is this really the best use of human creativity and inventiveness? If this is technological development, do we really want it?
Gustavo Gutierrez, in his book A Theology of Liberation, argued that what economists called economic development really just reinforced economic and social inequalities that benefited the Global North (at the time this essentially meant North America, Western Europe, and Japan) at the expense of Global South regions such as South America and Sub-Saharan Africa. He argued instead for economic liberation. He defined at least three levels of liberation: spiritual liberation, freedom from sin, which is at the heart of social injustice; human liberation, meaning freedom from want, sickness, lack of education, social isolation, and other problems that make it harder to live a truly human life; and, finally, social liberation, freedom from socio-economic and political structures that reinforce unjust, exploitative relationships.
In the same way, technological liberation could be contrasted with technological development. What is currently considered technological development, despite the good that can come from it, is mostly a way for investors in tech to maximize their profits even as it reinforces existing social inequalities.
Many areas of technological innovation could be used in liberative ways but are currently used primarily for maximizing profits for large companies. Two glaring examples are medical biotechnology and automation.
Biotechnology has great potential to reduce human suffering. CRISPR, for example, makes it possible to make incurable diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, curable. CRISPR could also be used to enable humans to adapt to changing conditions due to climate change. For example, people living in regions closer to the equator, where severe heat waves and water scarcity will become more common, could genetically modify themselves to be more heat resistant and better at retaining moisture. In order to ensure that genetic modifications will not end up becoming only an option for the super-rich in rich countries, there would need to be a way to make genetic modification technology universally available. Countries could cover genetic modification through a universal healthcare system. Such universal healthcare systems already exist in many European countries. Making genetic modification technology available on an international level could involve international agreements that would allow for unrestricted sharing of medically relevant genetic engineering technology. This would be similar to initiatives that allow countries in the Global South to develop their own COVID-19 vaccines without being restricted by patent laws.
A recent paper suggested that most people could see 10% of their work being automated, to some extent, by GPT (Generative Pre-Trained Transformer) technology, such as chatGPT, but in some fields they could see at least 50% of their work being automated to some extent. It is likely that this technology will be used to increase production, but it could also be used to reduce the amount of human labor required to meet basic income needs so that people can work less for the same money. As a result, they would have time for care work, political participation, leisure, the arts, and scientific exploration. This would fulfill the 20th century dream that technological progress would make work so efficient that it would drastically shorten the work day.
Do you want a four-hour workday in a four-day work week where the work is always meaningful and useful to society and an ecumenical sabbath that is from Friday through Sunday? GPTs could help make this happen, but it would require a restructuring of the economy away from growth. One possible way to do this, which has been suggested by Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan, and Andrea Vetter in The Future is Degrowth, would be to implement policies that would limit growth sectors of the economy, such as retail, and advertisement, in order to grow the public sector, such as social services and education.
Technology, if used in a just way, can liberate humanity from sickness, lack of basic necessities, and drudgery. It can liberate humans to become what we were intended to be in the Christian tradition: co-creators participating in creating and caring for God's world. Indeed, a better world is possible.
Caleb Strom is a PhD student studying planetary science at the University of North Dakota. He is interested in the intersection of faith, science, and technology and how they can be brought together to make a better world.
Image credit: Stanford University Computer Science Department