The role of technology comes up frequently as a topic of conversation at Gutenberg. Technological advances have precipitated some of the most significant cultural transformations in history, the industrial revolution being an example. The scientific/industrial revolution led to urbanization, rapid increases in population, the Enlightenment, and the demise of feudalism.
A similar technological revolution is occurring now: the computer revolution. Whether it be energy production, weather forecasting, manufacturing, or business and finance, no aspect of our life has not been profoundly touched by the computer. We all use smart phones, internet, social media, and YouTube every day; they have become a staple of modern life. However, the social impacts of our rapidly changing technology are still unfolding.
As enormous as these changes have been, another computer technology is now developing that may have even greater impact on our world: artificial intelligence (AI). I recently gave a talk on AI at one of our community classes and learned a great deal about the types of influences it is likely to have, and they are profound. But to make AI effective, computer programs need lots of data from which to “learn.” Medical records are used to create AI diagnoses. Financial data is used to find fraud. Photographic data is required for AI facial recognition. This puts huge data companies, such as Google and Facebook in the United States and those of the Chinese government, at the forefront of AI research and applications. Suffice it to say, these companies and a foreign government may not have our best interests in mind.
The author who has most impacted my thinking on technology is Jacques Ellul, who wrote The Technological Society (a book we read at Gutenberg) in 1954. Even though much of the book is dated, his analysis is as cogent now as it was then. He argued that our culture has elevated technological efficiency as the highest value in social, political, and economic realms. The drive for efficiency reorganizes the hierarchy of values, demoting such human values as love, care, community, and connection. As AI ramps up, there will undoubtedly be many significant changes. And I think it is safe to say that AI programs or machines that maximize efficiency will be adopted.
While I have some concerns about the power that those who use AI will wield, I believe that the greater threat is that we continue to lose sight of what it means to be human, specifically creatures of a loving God. The technology of AI may offer great advances, but the real question is whether the benefits outweigh the harms. In conclusion, I offer an encouragement. Life is about God, not efficiency. We would do well to think carefully about whether our use of technology honors or dishonors the values and commands of God.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.