After reading my recent post “‘Free’ and the Destruction of Worth,” reader Brian Auten sent notice of a compelling Salon interview with tech futurist Jaron Lanier—“The Internet Destroyed the Middle Class”—in which the polymath suggests he and other prognosticators underestimated the negative impact the Internet would have on our lives.
As a musician, Lanier thought the personal freedom offered by the Internet would enable music makers to take greater control of their careers and enhance their freedom to create the kind of music they wanted to make, free from corporate interference. Sadly, the Internet has instead reduced the net worth of musicians and created a career wasteland for many of them.
In a bold confession, Lanier admits he was shortsighted concerning the negative impact, saying his naiveté helped fuel the downturn.
Lanier goes on to note that rather than freeing people to do what they want, the Internet has destroyed aspirations—especially those related to jobs. The promise that the Internet will let us pursue the job we want to create for ourself has instead been replaced with the reality that it and other tech tools are allowing fewer and fewer people to do the work that once employed thousands, leaving no options for the displaced.
While many will just nod their heads and say We told you so, Lanier brings up an ethical issue raised by the destruction of middle class jobs that few are discussing:
Do corporations have an ethical responsibility to society to create jobs simply to employ people, even if technology has rendered those jobs less essential?
This is a question that has bothered me since the economic meltdown of 2008. Because it seemed that at one time companies DID stay loyal to employees whose jobs were less essential. There was a long view that a working middle class was universally better than a nonworking middle class that would slide gradually into poverty. And it may very well be that attitude of support for the less essential employee made America great.
Globalization and the race to the cost bottom may have put pressure on companies to abandon this ethic, but the 2008 meltdown pretty much sealed the deal in their collective minds.
Which brings me, as it always does, to the Church.
In the fin de siècle period (around 1900), the American Church was actively addressing many changes in American business. As more women entered the workplace, the Church was concerned for their welfare, especially in what could have become a predatory environment for young, inexperienced women moving from farms to the burgeoning big cities. And this was only one area of concern and active involvement. Speaking to the business world was a huge concern for the Church.
Today, the Church seems more concerned with how to start a workplace Bible study than any greater vision related to social change and the general welfare of employees.
This paradigm shift has worked against the Church in the long run. American Christians no longer prioritize general human welfare. In the case of the typical workplace, the Church’s concerns are not the ethics and operation of that workplace and how Christ can impact it, but the Church thinks solely of how to preserve some aspect of institutional church operation within that sphere.
I contend this is a wrong, selfish mentality. We Christians should be less concerned with preserving traditional church functions and more with the general welfare of people. It’s as if we have no more confidence that the Church can survive because we are afraid of the world’s successes against traditional Christian bastions. So we operate from a position of desperation instead of from our position of strength in which all the riches of heaven are on our side.
What is today’s Church saying about the ethics of hiring people simply so those people can have a job? And how can this NOT have an impact on the Church itself? The starving man is more concerned with food than with the Gospel, but give him that food in the name of Jesus and his ears will suddenly open to the message of Christ. We see this demonstrated again and again in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.
What is the need? Meet the need. Then speak about Jesus. It could not be more simple.
In addition, the Church has decided in the last century that it has nothing to say to corporate leaders about other aspects of employee welfare. And where is the boldness, in the midst of the ongoing ethical meltdown in big business, from a Church that should be able to promise those businesses that if they give them their people, the Church can return a more ethical employee?
Instead, the primary Church goal is relegated to fighting the corporation to ensure that a handful of employees can enjoy a lunch break Bible study in a back room someplace. Yes, that may be needful, but God help us, the vision is so vanishingly small!
What tech has done to the workplace and general employment MUST be something the Church, like it once did 100 years ago, speaks to.
Tech is increasingly outpacing the ethical answers the Church once provided to society. In other news, it is now possible to print guns with 3D printers, those printers available to the average consumer. What does this or any other tech-driven issue mean for the Church?
Are we Christians asking these questions? If so, where are the answers?
Is the Church simply in survival mode—or are we Christians actively working toward addressing the most intractable issues of our day, issues that, in the end, affect every person on the planet?
If the Church can’t answer these questions, who will?