Matthew Fox, the Episcopal priest, not the actor, is one of the few theologians I know who’s been thinking about the meaning of work and vocation within the larger matrix of an understanding of the purpose of Creation. There’s a sense in his writing, and of others, as well as that of sociologists, that human beings have a deep seated need to do meaningful work.
But there’s a problem lately. Jobs are going away. Even the cruddy, dehumanizing jobs of the sort that so many decried during the height of the Industrial revolution. With no work, and no way to provide for a family’s needs, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing a breakdown in the structures of community.
I came across this article a few months ago that points out that our increasingly sophisticated technology is perhaps driving the change. We need less workers to accomplish what we used to need…
From an essay by David Roffman in the MIT Technology Review that discusses the work of Erik Brynjolfsson, from the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Andrew McAfee which focuses on trying to get a handle on the shift:
“[T]he most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress. On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the ‘great decoupling.’ And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.
It’s a startling assertion because it threatens the faith that many economists place in technological progress. Brynjolfsson and McAfee still believe that technology boosts productivity and makes societies wealthier, but they think that it can also have a dark side: technological progress is eliminating the need for many types of jobs and leaving the typical worker worse off than before. Brynjolfsson can point to a second chart indicating that median income is failing to rise even as the gross domestic product soars. ‘It’s the great paradox of our era,’ he says. ‘Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.’”
(It’s a long article…)
I think the Church clearly has a need to think this through. What will say to culture when the basic need of the community to provide meaningful work is no longer being met, but we still swim in a cornucopia of material goods that threatens to drown us.
Oddly enough Gene Roddenberry (of Star Trek fame) thought about this in his wondering about the future of humanity. He imagined that technology would commodify most of industrial production – and given a limitless source of energy – no one would want for anything. He imagined that mass produced stuff would lose it’s value. Food stuff, technology, etc would be essentially free. The things that would become valuable would be things that were handcrafted, one of a kind sorts of objects. A violin by a master crafter is much more highly prized than a instrument largely stamped out by machine. A hand thrown pot made by a master ceramicist in Japan is much more precious to us than a vase we pick up at the local big box store for a buck; even though both serve the same essential purpose.
So if technology is fundamentally changing the meaning of work and, I guess by extension, the meaning of vocation, what shall we as the Church contribute to the conversation?
Does anyone know of anyone working in this area of theology?