We tend to view progress as (1) inevitable, (2) necessary, and (3) good for everyone.
It is inevitable, in part, because we must have new ideas and tools at our disposal to address emerging challenges. Progress is necessary because without it we may become incapable of surviving (or being comfortable) in a broken world.
It is good for everyone because its fruits make it easier to survive in the systems we have created. We, and we assume everyone else, are better off than we would be if forced to deal with the struggles of previous eras.
This perspective on progress tends to ignore the more entrenched ways we make sense of our social worlds. For instance, in “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis,” historian Mark Noll argues after the Civil War, “two great problems in practical theology confronted the United States.” The first was the ongoing problem of racism, which was not solved by abolition.
The second “was the expansion of consumer capitalism, in which unprecedented opportunities to create wealth were matched by large-scale alienation and considerable poverty in both rural and urban America.”
If Noll is correct in his assessment that consumer capitalism was left largely unaddressed after the Civil War, it would seem wise for God’s people to consider the influence of economics on the world today, particularly in light of recent “technological advancements” such as artificial intelligence (AI).
While AI is currently dominating popular conversation, we need to guard against our tendency to focus on the symptom (e.g., the social disruptions associated with AI) rather than addressing underlying mechanisms driving symptoms forward.
AI’s economics must provide sufficient benefits (monetary or otherwise) for companies and investors. We seem to be repeating a pattern similar to the widespread adoption of social media despite our awareness of social media’s negative consequences. Economic logic is one of the drivers behind AI product launches despite the known problems and potential risks associated with AI.
To be clear, I am not arguing for a move toward socialism. Creating a sucker’s choice between capitalism and socialism distracts us from more robust discussions of the challenges posed by consumer capitalism and the various ways such challenges might be overcome.
As Christians evaluate technologies, we need to be asking ourselves how technologies create new symptoms that distract us from the underlying problem. If we are not careful, “the distractions [will] begin to become our reality” and keep us from addressing the underlying dynamics from which more symptoms will emerge.
For instance, many technology companies maximize profitability by employing cheap labor. As Matteo Wong notes in The Atlantic, “Much of the data that train AI models is labeled by people making poverty wages, many of them located in the global South… Social media is usable and desirable because of armies of content moderators also largely in the global South.”
While we might assume that even poverty wages benefit certain individuals globally, understanding the labor philosophies necessary to advance technologies like AI raises doubts about the utopian vision AI advocates often promote. AI models won’t just create problems we can’t foresee, they will exacerbate problems of which we are aware but tend to ignore.
At this point, it is clear that companies developing and launching AI models are well aware that (1) there are and will continue to be significant downsides to AI and (2) they are more likely to reap the benefits of AI while others experience its negative consequences.
As consumers, we tacitly agree that our upside will (1) outweigh our downside and (2) justify downsides others experience. We run the risk of callously embracing the notion that progress requires sacrifice, particularly when the burdens of sacrifice are borne by others.
As the community of faith finds new ways to leverage AI for Gospel purposes, we need to remember that, like the other products we enjoy, AI models are the fruit of too-often-anonymous human labor.
As Christians consider how to navigate the systems of our world, we need to cultivate the sort of sense-making Abram demonstrates in Genesis 14.
After defeating the four kings, Abram “gave him [Melchizedek] a tenth of everything” in recognition of God’s role in his victory. Abram refuses to take anything from the king of Sodom so he cannot claim to have made Abram rich (Gen 14:22-23).
Yet, he does not place himself or those with him at a deficit by accepting “what the young men have eaten and the share of the men who went with me” (14:24).
Abram gives, refuses to profit, and accepts the share that will make him and his companions whole.
Like Abram, we need to learn when to be generous, to refuse profits, and to care for our companions, even if our companions are those who labor behind the devices that make our lives more convenient.