Work, Technology, and Rest, Part 1
This material was presented in July 2020 in a Zoom lecture to Wee Tiong Howe’s Global Kingdom Leadership and Ministry Equipping Program, based in Singapore.
It would be easy for us to imagine technology as a phenomenon of later modernity, especially given the unbelievable advances in technology during the past 100 years. In fact, technology is as old as humanity itself and the Bible records its emergence at the very beginnings of human existence. From the beginning, God had a purpose for technology and its place in human work. Nevertheless, the relationship between human work and technology, while inseparable, has always presented a contested intersection.
Recently I saw an article in the Seattle Times about how Microsoft was eliminating dozens of contract editorial workers because of advances in the abilities of artificial intelligence to curate stories. Storytelling would have seemed to be a human province that AI did not threaten, but in fact, even professions like law, medicine, architecture and virtually all others have seen a marked increase in dependence on artificial intelligence and technology, making professionals less necessary in quantitative terms. Some thinkers have predicted the obsolescence of human work altogether, and dystopic science fiction movies constantly explore the theme of technology taking over and even making humans unnecessary. Talk of a post-human future abounds. In the face of such fears, the question inevitably arises as to whether technology is a good thing—especially in terms of the welfare of workers. The Bible offers a clear answer.
First, the Bible teaches us that work is a fundamental characteristic of humans created in God’s image. The Bible, in fact, presents God as the first worker, declaring in Genesis 2:2, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work” (NIV). Genesis 2:15 goes on to present humans as workers: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (NIV). Work constitutes part of the image of God in humans, who in taking on creative and maintenance responsibilities manifest their god-like nature. The fall of humanity into sin and the resulting curse of the ground would complicate our work—making it harder and less pleasant—but work nevertheless remains part of our nature and destiny.
The chronicle of human beginnings goes on to feature the work of the accursed Cain in Genesis 4:17, as we find him building a city—a major development in work that not only led to the busy urban landscapes we increasingly inhabit today but also toward the eventual urban eternity that awaits us in the New Jerusalem. City life did not result from the fall, but rather was part of God’s telos, or ultimate aim, for humanity from before the foundation of the world. While country living offers important dimensions for human flourishing, city life had to emerge in order for human community, creativity, and productivity to reach their fullest expression. The pioneering psychiatrist Sigmund Freud read the story of Cain and his family as demonstrating that civilization arose out of guilt, as sinful human beings sought to redeem themselves through achievement. For Cain, building a city represented his own personal “plan of salvation” (remember his fear of avengers and his felt need of refuge). Ever since Cain built the first city, humans have sought salvation in cities, but even Freud recognized the paradox of civilization: city life rises out of guilt but winds up compounding and increasing guilt. Rather than making us safe and happy, it winds up making us more unhappy—thence the move back to country living illustrated in the old TV series, “Green Acres.” (Cue Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor singing the theme song.) Overall, civilization is a complex moral good, but it cannot save us.
Six generations later, Jubal would become “the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes” and Tubal-Cain would forge “all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron” (Genesis 4:21–22 NIV). Like civilization as a whole, technology emerged after the Fall as humans asserted their humanity in taking dominion over their surroundings, turning stone and wood into musical instruments, smelting ore into metal and tools. Guilt and human desire for redemption, self-worth, and productivity all play into the advance of technology. Like urbanization, technology is a complex moral good, affected by sin, but nevertheless an essential part of the nature God has given us. In order for us to transcend our simple abilities, we need tools and technology.
Work is not an exclusively human phenomenon, as several kinds of intelligent animals engage in work. But animal work is not truly creative and functions out of instinct. Animals mostly do their work without tools, and even when they use tools, the tools do not transform their work through the value-added principle. Human work, in contrast, resembles divine work in its expression of true creativity and innovation. In fact, every distinctive form of human work requires tools. Music requires the use of instruments. Writing and historiography require pen and paper (or digital replacements of them). Complex construction requires tools. Farming requires plows and other implements. Aside from the purely athletic events featured in what Americans call “track and field,” all sports require equipment. From the beginning of our species, Homo sapiens have leaned on technology to turn our imagination into real-world products of art and craft.
The complexity of technology as a moral good can be seen in at least three major pitfalls: work against God’s will, the invasion of human will, and the frustration of rest. First, technology can assist human beings in rebellion against God’s will. On one hand, the more we fulfill God’s mission and fulfill God’s will, the more like God we become. On the other, the more we try to do our work without God, the more estranged from God we become. Technology amplifies our work and its results, and just as it can make us more like God when we use it to fulfill his will, it can estrange us further from God when we use it to go our own way. Just as technology increases our productivity in terms of the mission of God, it can distance us from God by extending the scope of our rebellion. Genesis illustrates these potentialities in showing how the line of Cain would eventually lead the world to destruction in the flood as humans reached a state of total estrangement from God. In contrast, Noah used technology in obedience to God to build the ark, providing a vehicle for God’s plan of salvation and enabling a reset of God’s mission for humanity.
A second pitfall of technology can result in the subversion of the human will. As suggested above, it is hard to conceive of a human in motion without something in his or her hand. In simple usage, technology has been something humans employ with a great deal of independence. As technology increases, we are becoming less and less independent of it. How many tasks do we now depend on the smart phone to do for us? How many times per day do we consult it to find out what we should do? In some ways, we have all become cyborgs, defined as “a person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body.” In the past, many people have become so dependent upon or addicted to tools and instruments that they virtually never put them down. Workaholism and captivity to technology has afflicted humans since the times of Tubal-Cain and represents the most important way in which the tools can take over and rule us. The power they give us is addicting and threatens to turn us into slaves.
As technology has advanced, it has increasingly progressed from something independent of us to being something incorporated into us. Cochlear implants, lenses implanted in cataract surgeries, artificial joints, cardiac pacemakers—these all represent internalized technological enhancements of humans. All of these examples represent appropriate incorporations of technology that serve the good. So far, healthy organs are not being replaced, but it is probably only a matter of time until technology begins to replace healthy organs to provide enhanced powers—as seen in “Star Trek’s” “the Borg.” Implanted chips are already emerging, and even tattoos have been designed as implanted nanotechnology to serve a variety of functions, including external device control. Moving still further into the technological supplanting of humanity, singularitarians work night and day and expect to upload human consciousness to digital devices within 40 years, allowing humans to achieve eternal life through technology. Some imagine the blending of human consciousness with artificial intelligence to create the next leap forward in human—or post-human—evolution. While I do not believe such efforts will ever succeed, the very concept of post-humanism points to the invasion of human will and the potential for conflict between natural and artificial intelligence. Biblical concepts such as the specter of Antichrist and the Mark of the Beast (in which everyone will have the number of the beast incorporated into their body in order to buy or sell) provokes our imagination about how technology could come to be used for demonic purposes and the domination of humanity.
Finally, as this second point has alluded, technology threatens to deprive human beings of the God-given privilege of rest—both temporally and eternally. I will address this issue in my next blog. But in view of this discussion of technology as a complex moral good, the following implications emerge:
- Technology is a complex good because of its sinful nature, but it remains good and essential to human work.
- We should use technology to accomplish good things that are consistent with the will and mission of God and the flourishing of humanity.
- We should use medical breakthroughs to lengthen our lives and technological enhancements to preserve our abilities.
- We should humble ourselves before God and seek His direction in prayer when considering the use of technology. We should not use it thoughtlessly nor arrogantly. We belong to God, including our lives and work.
- We should always be careful not to let technology set our agenda or limit it. We must remain the masters of technology and never let it master us.
- While technology can be an aid to godliness, we must never use it to try to assume godhood, replace God as savior, or defy God’s prerogatives and purposes.