The rise of technology - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The rise of technology

The rise of technology

I imagine most of us here this morning possess a computer, a lap-top, or an ipad, or iphone and use that modern technology as a matter of course. Some of us are more at home with it than others, but all of us tend to share the assumption that technological innovation is a good thing which has brought great benefits to humankind. We assume that technological progress has made the world a better place and although in terms of the workforce innovation kills some jobs, it creates new better, cleaner ones.

That is the rhetoric which we have bought into. A leader article in last week's Economist magazine punctures that optimistic view, and shows that certainly in the short and medium term technological advances will adversely affect particularly middle and lower income earners, especially in jobs which rely on routine processes. 47% of today's jobs could well be automated in twenty years time.

When Instagram -  a photo-sharing site - was sold to Facebook for about 1 billion dollars in 2012 it had 30 million customers and employed 13 people. Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy a few months earlier, employed 145,000 people in its heyday. Swathes of jobs are being lost to automation, computerisation and robotics and this trend is likely to increase and cause hardship inequality and anger in society.

Remember the Chartists. Politicians who have built their credibility on the rhetoric of economic growth, technological progress, steadily rising standards of living and widening prosperity will find all this hard to address; and even now all the political parties are struggling to speak to a country which has to tighten its belt and cut its budgets. This credibility gap will only increase. On top of all this there is already plenty of evidence that the public is disillusioned with the current political system, and distrustful of our institutions - bankers, the law, the BBC, even the NHS. There is a general decline in trust, a feeling that society is becoming more fragmented, and a loss of hope and optimisim for the future.

Against this rather depressing but realistic background we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, which are echoed in St Matthew's Gospel - people walking through dark times have seen a great light, words which speak of hope, of darkness transformed into light, words which Isaiah first spoke to a people in exile in a time of great insecurity, repeated by Jesus at a time of oppression and occupation by a foreign power. There are shafts of light in a dark landscape if only we can discern them.

It seems to me that the challenges I spoke of earlier actually present an opportunity for the church, to speak of other aspirations than simply that of higher standards of living, but also to stand firmly  and strongly with those who are struggling, and who do feel left behind in the prosperity stakes. Where there is a sense of fragmentation in Society, the church can offer community. The church has been doing 'The Big Society', engaging practically with local communities at grass roots level for decades before the government dreamt up the idea.

We can also show how it is possible to make diversity work, because the local church can and does bring together people from different backgrounds and strata of society in a way which is increasingly difficult in other institutions. Where there is need the church can offer practical help - from food-banks to soup runs, to support groups, to youth projects, cafes and advice centres, clubs for the elderly.

Above all, where the is a sense of the shallowness of meaninglessness of much modern living, the church can offer spiritual resources of worship, fellowship, prayer and teaching, a forum in which questions about the bigger narrative of our human existence can be asked and answered.
The light shining in the darkness of which Isaiah speaks finds its focus for Christians in the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross - the love, commitment and selflessness that is at the heart of Christian witness and service.

Just like those first disciples called by Jesus, we are all stepping into an unknown future for which we have no clear blueprint. We don't know exactly where the challenges of technology which I began with will take us, even though we try our best to read the signs of the times.
Just as a footnote on technological innovation, a table has been published showing how the probability of job losses through computerisation increases in relation to the ease with which jobs can be automated. Most at risk are telemarketers, accountants, those in retail, estate agents, typists and machinists. Happily I am delighted to say that those least at risk of redundancy include Editors, dentists, and the clergy. People skills and creative skills cannot easily be replicated by a machine.

Innovation has brought great benefits to society over the centuries: we can't put the clock back. We have to learn to live with the consequences, and the solutions will to large extent have to be in the hands of government, but I believe that in that process the churches, indeed all the faith communities, have something vital to offer in both highlighting and meeting human need, and in pointing people to a larger, more generous, narrative into which they can locate their own lives and their own challenges: the narrative of a world made by God in which humankind can best flourish by living lives centred on 'enough for me and enough for others' on self-giving not selfish getting, and on living together as diverse communities and cultures all made in God's image.

When we pray, in the Lord's Prayer, 'Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven', we are committing ourselves to trust in the present and to hope for the future, whatever challenges it may hold. 'The people that walk in darkness have seen a great light'.  In difficult times God's light still shines.

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