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Our Utilitarian Utopia

April 13, 2018


You walk into a restaurant, a few customers at the diner-style bar at the front, a couple more tucked within comfortable booths along a series of windows. You have an important meeting with colleagues in an hour and are in need of a quick bite while you review your notes. You are instructed to seat yourself by a sign, and so you grab a booth at the corner of the restaurant. Just as you slouch into the booth and place your folder on the table, a polite, androgynous voice floats over your shoulder.

“Can I provide you with a beverage?”

The question comes from a silver face with a frozen smile and metallic eyes. It, the robot, waits patiently for your response.

The entire restaurant, actually, is filled with robots doing various things: taking food orders, wresting dirty plates from empty tables, laboring diligently in front of an industrial stove in the back. The only human beings within the diner are the customers.

This is no fantasy, and while certainly not the norm—at least not yet—establishments of this sort have sprung up in places like Nagasaki, Japan, and Mountain View, California, among other places. An article from The Atlantic titled “Robots Will Transform Fast Food” explains that “70 percent of the jobs at Japan’s hotels will be automated in the next five years,” at least according to one prediction.

This dovetails nicely with the slew of articles, books, and public lectures about the changing landscape of America’s workforce— namely, the impending loss of jobs to sweeping technological innovation. Some sources have said that within twenty years, fifty percent of today’s jobs will be handled by non-human workers. There are a bevy of conflicting perspectives on the topic, with some voicing alarm over the possibility of a perpetually unemployed legion of citizens and others recalling soberly that technological innovation has been making jobs obsolete for the last century and has only continued to foment the creation of more interesting and higher-level jobs for humans to still occupy.

While concern over the rise of a pervasive, mindless, and metallic workforce is reasonable, there is a deeper cultural issue at hand. Convenience and efficiency remain good things in and of themselves, but have they taken precedence as the highest aim of our human efforts? For example, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that we can order a latte or macchiato on our smartphones, duck into a Starbucks en route to the office, and forgo the protracted need to interact with a barista by simply grabbing a customized beverage off the counter. It isn’t as if exchanging a few superficial words of greeting and articulating that we want three shots of espresso in our latte sets the groundwork for a lasting bond of connection with another human being, right? Plus, this saves us a few minutes on our commute, allowing us to arrive at the office earlier and get to work sooner. Still, might we start to lose something in the name of ease?

I’m not sure how to answering questions regarding legislative or practical ways of ensuring the implementation of new technologies maintain the dignity of human work and relationships. However, I am interested in at least examining our cultural ethos—our apotheosizing of productivity and utility. Almost all of us would agree that safeguarding the dignity of human beings as entities that can’t be reduced to mere units for production is a good thing. Yet, do our collective actions and behaviors align with these beliefs? At what point have we bought into the idea that efficiency is more important than the immaterial needs of the human project?

Adults in this country continue to work more average hours a week while children are doled out less free time for undirected play, a critical piece of healthy child development. We talk about a work-life balance, but such a concept is problematic since it forms an unnatural dichotomy within our social and civic lives. Can our work not pour into our lives and our lives into our work instead of them remaining mutually exclusive aspects of our existence? Can our work be more than a job or career, but be seen in the light of a comprehensive human activity that provides for our families while serving—and loving—the common good in ways that animate our dignity as co-creators with God? Even the notion that we go on vacation or have weekends for the sake of “recharging” offers an insidious implication: our lives are ultimately structured around our economic utility. Instead of time off to allow our spending more time with our family, participating in pleasurable hobbies, volunteering to serve members of our community, and worshiping God in a community, it is merely a means to an end: refreshment for the purposes of work.

In fact, it’s one of the first things we ask children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We don’t even use the verb “do,” but instead pose the questions in ontological terms. We are asking, in essence, what will you become in order to produce value and utility to our society? Of course, none of us mean it this way, and there is nothing wrong with asking children to share and hone their dreams regarding how they want to contribute to the world. But again, there seems to be a dichotomy between what we believe and what we actually do. We want our children to play baseball and join the debate team and learn a musical instrument in order to help them form character, build relationships, and develop a passion for things, yet we often couch the need to do such things in the utilitarian language (e.g., “It’ll look great on a college application!”). The less we explicitly use language that speaks of the immeasurable value of life, and more on the empirical data points that cue productivity, wealth, and economic value to society, the more we lose sense of our telos: to love others and God and enjoy with gratitude the gift of existence for its own sake.

In Jürgen Moltmann’s book Theology of Play, he defines God’s creation of the universe as a divine form of play.

“When [a human being] creates something that is not god but also not nothing, then this must have its ground not in itself but in God’s good will or pleasure. Hence the creation is God’s play, a play of his groundless and inscrutable wisdom. It is the realm in which God displays his glory.”

I think it helps to consider what play—any activity that doesn’t constitute traditional work such as conversing with friends, pursuing a hobby, creating art, playing a sport, etc.—means to us. We don’t play to accomplish something, but because it’s good to do in and of itself. God did not have to create the world, but did so for its own sake and because he delighted in it. How might we better approach our life with a similar attitude and not merely to achieve a series of utilitarian outcomes? 

Back to the robots. It might can be a great blessing when technology is able to relieve us of certain jobs, granting us the opportunity to do other things. But we shouldn’t desire increased technological innovation to merely make us more efficient, productive, and utilitarian. We should desire it insofar as it allows us to express our humanity. If we lose the opportunity to work, serve, and love others in exchange for a cheaper, subhuman alternative, then the economic and utilitarian value gained—no matter how great—won’t make up for what we might lose: the expression of our humanity, dignity, and infinite worth.