Last week, Google made headlines with the announcement of a prototype driverless car right out of the pages of a science fiction novel. The wizards of Mountain View are so confident in their technology that the car doesn’t even have a steering wheel or pedals. Still, a majority of the American people do not share this optimism, and with good reason. Technology in itself is neither bad nor good, but at this time in the history of Western Civilization, we should be wary of what these breathtaking technological advancements will be used for. Will it enrich our lives and lead to greater human flourishing, and if so, how? We should think about this question now, before it is too late.
To take an example, the Inc. 5000 tracks the fastest growing companies in America. If you look at the results for Virginia, eight of the top ten companies are in government services. Every company relies on technology to become more efficient, more productive, and more profitable, and this is as it should be. However, technology is like the Jedi “Force.” It also has a dark side. Northern Virginia is one of the largest concentrations of technology jobs in the world, but easily half of the companies in this booming technology sector are in government consulting and services, which is to say they do not actually make any product, but are in the business of giving advice and filing reports and performing audits—all paid for with taxpayer dollars.
Everybody would like to think that the technology industry is going to be the driver of limitless prosperity and amazing breakthroughs, but for every Google that is pursuing futuristic fantasies, there are swarms of hundreds of beltway bandits that are eating out the very soul and vitality of the American economy. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier and free us from mundane drudgery to do more productive and creative things, but in fact, quite the opposite is happening. Technology also enables the Leviathan of the federal government to continually feed its insatiable appetite for self-perpetuating bureaucracy.
A century ago, this country was at the forefront of technology, just as it is today. American inventors and entrepreneurs created unprecedented technological advancements. Electricity, radios, airplanes, machine guns, tanks, and even the earliest computers were all entirely novel and yet the government and military managed to adapt to these technologies while remaining a miniscule fraction of the size that they have become today. It’s not the technology itself that is the problem, but how we use it. Technology is an enabler. It does have the power to free us, but only if we want to be free in the first place. Conversely, technology run amok without a purpose has the power to destroy mankind, just not in the ways we think.
In the fictional universe of Star Wars or Star Trek, the biggest suspension of disbelief is that we will have mastered interstellar travel, but we will still need some guy to fly a fighter or run the teleporter or scan for lifeforms. This may have seemed realistic in the 1970’s or even the 1990’s, but today it is laughable. In the future, all the exciting jobs will be automated. It is precisely the jobs which are most dull and meaningless which will still be performed by humans. Instead of taking the long way home with the windows down and the radio turned up on a summer evening, we will be efficiently and speedily whisked away by self-driving cars from our nondescript cubicle farms to our homes where we can effortlessly connect back into the office to keep working at all hours.
The Terminator movies have it all wrong. The machines will not enslave us with drones and nukes. No, like Marley and Scrooge, we are slowly and diligently making our own chains and shackles with every new information security auditor and director of access compliance that springs up in the bosom of the already ponderous federal bureaucracy and which is now also smothering every imaginable industry in the private sector from hairdressers to high finance with a profusion of federal regulations the likes of which we have never seen before. Nobody wants to watch a sci-fi series about socially awkward career bureaucrats meticulously complying with redundant and contradictory layers of regulations, but this is the bright new future that the Google car opens to us.
God gave us free will for a reason. We are on this earth to serve one another and to glorify God with our lives. As a civilization, we have benefited enormously from developments in automation and efficiency in the last century and it would be foolish to say that technology is “bad.” However, until recent years, the people who were using technology shared a certain degree of common purpose and dedication to at least some loose notion of a Christian conception of virtue. This is no longer the case. When the majority of our society is anti-Christian, we can no longer count on the goodwill of our fellow man, especially when it comes to technology that we do not understand.
Technology is disruptive, but not because the world is suddenly going to fall apart. Rather, the greatest disruption is how close technology will bind us to one another. The tighter we shackle ourselves to the collective will with technology, the slower and less responsive we will become in every aspect of our lives as endless regulation and bureaucracy creeps into even the most mundane task. It is already happening now, and it’s only going to get worse. Inaction is a decision and his has consequences, and we have not yet begun to see the consequences of the technologically induced informational paralysis which is already numbing our ability to act.
The most frightening thing about technology today is how much each of us does in the digital world without even realizing it. Instead of exercising free will, we are now more and more hapless victims of the devices and technologies that we rely upon. Without even intending to, we are supplanting God in our lives with a sort of chaos. 50 years ago, The Jetsons depicted a bright and shiny vision of life in the middle of the 21st century with flying cars and robotic dogs, but it also depicted a godless world of endless drudgery and toil without any hope of personal improvement. Unless we are careful, this science fiction utopia may indeed come to pass. Instead of drifting along in a driverless car to an unknown future, we must hold fast to the wheel and steer our destiny towards Christ along that narrow way which leads to glory.