The Rise of the Machines

Technology is good only insofar as it helps those who use it grow in virtue


Justice Virtue

In an interview for CBS’s 60 Minutes, one of the world’s leading experts on artificial intelligence, Kai Fu Lee, predicted that within 15 years robots and associated technologies will displace about 40% of the jobs in the world.  We might quibble over the actual percentage or the rapidity at which his prediction comes to fruition, but most of us can agree that a crisis is looming that could have a permanent impact on the way people live.  The problem is that most people would label it as an economic crisis, one which, with proper economic planning, can be overcome.  In truth, however, the problem runs much deeper.

Believe it or not, the Roman Empire was faced with a similar problem.  The upper class Patricians enjoyed an economic monopoly over the lower class Plebeians.  This economic stronghold was maintained not so much because the Patricians exploited the Plebeians directly.  In fact, the problem was that they were entirely economically independent from them.  Instead of needing them as workers, they relied on slave labor.  The slaves helped to maintain the Patricians’ wealth and the Plebeians, in turn, had little work to do.  The Empire supplied the poor freemen with grain, but the fact is that the entire Empire was not economically poorer but spiritually poorer because of it.  It does not take much to see the obvious parallel to the use of technology in our own day.

Slave labor afforded the Patricians more free time, time that was mostly spent consuming the debasing entertainment of the day.  The Plebeians, because they had nothing else to do and because they too at least knew they would eat, tended to be bored and prone to act like violent animals.  Providing them with bread, the leaders maintained order by also giving them plenty of circuses.

We all know what happened: the Roman Empire ultimately decayed from within.  Moral depravity spread until there was nothing left to defend or good men to defend it.  And here is where the lesson of Rome can be applied to the rise of work-based technology.  Rome lacked virtue because Romans lacked work.  Without the Gospel they of course could only see the thorns and thistles in the sweat of the brow.  They had no way of knowing that work was more about what the producer became than about what he produced.  Work is not just about transforming raw material but about transforming the raw material of our human nature.  It took the rise of Christianity, a religion which worshipped a God made Carpenter, from them to realize it.

Technological advances and slavery are obviously vastly different things, morally speaking, but one of the many reasons why slavery is wrong is because of what it turns the slaveholders into.  They become, in many ways, less human than the slaves themselves.  Not only are they marked by cruelty but they lack the virtues that only work can inculcate.  And so it goes with technology.  Troglodytism aside, technology is a useful thing but is a good thing only insofar as it helps those who use it grow in virtue.  Manual labor may not be as efficient as a machine at making widgets, but it is more efficient at making a man.  We may make more money when 40% of the workforce is displaced, but we will most assuredly make less men.

St. John Paul II once said that an obsession with efficiency was at the root of the Culture of Death.  If he was right (and he was) then we need to stop measuring everything by efficiency.  Instead we should only use those technologies that help us to become more human, not less.


Rob holds an MA in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a concentration in moral theology. He has a passion for spreading the joy of the Catholic Faith through teaching and writing.

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