Technology Seen and Unseen

Technology Seen and Unseen November 15, 2016

By Dylan Pahman

conductorI, for one, welcome our new robot overlords. Well, not really – mainly because we don’t actually face the threat of Skynet anytime soon.

And thankfully neo-Luddites – those who argue for rejecting modern technology – are relatively few these days. Nevertheless, they are not entirely absent, and less extreme but no less incorrect adherents, such as the novelist and poet Wendell Berry, still exert considerable influence in some circles. In reality, however, technological progress has meant progress in human flourishing.

To answer the Luddites, first of all we must acknowledge that there is truth to what is seen. People see workers losing their jobs due to technology. When that happens (and it does), Christians and other people of good will should not be indifferent.

However, not all people who complain about the loss of manufacturing jobs see even this. The economic nationalists who oppose trade, like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, clearly do not. According to economist Ben Casselman, “In 1994 there were 3.5 million more Americans working in manufacturing than in retail. Today, those numbers have almost exactly reversed, and the gap is widening.” He continues to note, however, that manufacturing production in the United States is still quite strong, having more than recovered since the 2008 recession. At the same time, manufacturing jobs have not increased proportionally with that production. Why? In part because of technology. Despite their smaller numbers and the relative unpopularity of their cause, the neo-Luddites have a better case to make than the economic nationalists.

Yes, there are real losses in the short term from new technology. For example, a classic case of technological creative destruction is the newspaper business. According to Ken Doctor, “Newsroom jobs dropped 10.4 percent — down to 32,900 full-time journalists at nearly 1,400 U.S. dailies, 2014 over 2013.” Last year was worse. A recent Pew Report notes, “2015 was perhaps the worst year for newspapers since the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath. Daily circulation fell by 7%, the most since 2010, while advertising revenue at publicly traded newspaper companies fell by 8%, the most since 2009.”

While print books are actually keeping up quite well with ebooks, fewer people are getting their news from print newspapers anymore. More and more readers are getting their news from online sources instead, and many formerly successful papers took too long to adjust and adjusted poorly. Many traditional papers have cut circulation and cut employment and pay, if not shut down business altogether. This is what critics of technology see.

What goes unseen? Online publication has exploded. Every website needs a web designer and manager. Every publication, no matter the medium, needs editors. And more publications mean more opportunities for authors. These opportunities may entail lower pay than what journalists used to start at, motivating some authors to seek other employment, but they offer a foot in the door that for many had not been available at all. More journalists and other writers can get real experience writing earlier in their careers, and they can leverage that experience later to move up the ladder of mobility.

When people compare how things are to how things were, they fail to see that many of the people receiving lower pay wouldn’t have been able to write and get paid for it at all before. Furthermore, online publishing allows written news to keep up better with current events in a way that only TV and radio could before. If there is a major world crisis, there will be developing articles posted right away at multiple news outlets and updated in real time.

Of course, greater quantity does not guarantee greater quality. That’s one of the tradeoffs of new technology in this case. But it’s not as if there weren’t outrageously biased news outlets and commentators before the internet. One good aspect of this proliferation is that now someone is more likely to find a quality publication that cares about their culture and interests, and writers have more options in the same way as well. Nor should it be overlooked that, generally speaking, most people still have a sense that there is a difference of quality between some random person’s blog and a Wall Street Journal editorial. The industry has changed, and some people have been hurt by that change, but on net the shift is positive, not only for people in the business but for people who previously weren’t in the business at all (web and IT personnel, social media marketers, and so on) as well as for consumers.

To circle back to manufacturing, more machinery does mean some less human work … at those factories … maybe. What people don’t see is that that machinery comes from somewhere. It represents entirely new industries that have been created and that employ many people of their own. That machinery needs to be maintained by people with the skill and expertise to do so. At the same time, because automation reduces the labor cost of production, it enables companies to lower prices to consumers while still increasing profits. What is a loss for the few is a win for the many.

Technological advancements certainly fall under the same moral limits as other human endeavors. However, at their best they represent one of the finest examples of the image of God shining through humanity. Not only do people make things from God’s world, they make things that make things from his world. Such achievements require long processes of trial and error by people especially gifted with the intelligence, intuition, and patience necessary to see a project through, even after many failures, for the benefit of humankind.

Indeed, one of the cradles of invention in the medieval era was monasteries, communities of people who dedicated their lives to being “renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created [them]” (Colossians 3:10). Monks created and adopted new technology, much of which we still benefit from today, such as clocks, mills, and double-entry bookkeeping. They did this out of self-interest, wanting simply to keep track of the hours of prayer, more productively use their resources and pay their bills, and balance their accounts. But the benefits could not be contained to them alone. So too with any other technology. Despite the protests of neo-Luddites, technology really does improve our lives and our economies, and thereby serves the common good.

Originally published at Acton Commentary

Photo credit: Magnus Hagdorn

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