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July 2019 Credo

At the 2016 meeting in Davos, the theme of the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum (WEF) was “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. The significant influence of Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of WEF, was evident. He had recently written his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which became influential in the thinking of global leaders in government and business.

Today, many people, including government leaders, are talking about the ideas in Schwab’s book, and how we must be prepared to adapt ourselves to this new industrial revolution.

The First Industrial Revolution took place in 18th century England and Europe with the advent of the steam engine. This brought about new factories and the rise of iron industries, textile production and travel. The Second Industrial Revolution took place at the beginning of the 20th century when electricity was used to light up homes and streets and engine new production technologies. The motor car began to appear and soon changed our urban landscape and the way we travelled.

The Third Industrial Revolution began in the 1960s to 1980s, depending on the opinions of different people, when the computer revolutionised how we did work and organised life. The quick appearance of the Internet and social media has revolutionised the way we communicate and relate with one another.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is said to take us to a new world we never imagined possible, connected with rising new technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, mobile supercomputing, genetic splicing, nanotechnology 3-D printing and the Internet-of-Things will result in the fusing of the biological, digital and physical worlds. This, to some, is an exciting new world, while others are concerned about the ill-effects of such sweeping changes.

Leaders are taking note because Schwab argues that if states do not manage the new industrial revolution well, they will be overwhelmed by it, resulting in the loss of proper governance and social well-being. Others may be more interested in harvesting the new technologies for profit and creating wealth.

There are some scholars such as the American economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, who reject that there is a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Rifkin argues that we are still squarely in the Third Industrial Revolution.

But whatever the case may be, for Christians and the church, there is a need to reflect on the coming technological and social changes as they will significantly affect our faith and discipleship.

The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) still resonates with us today. The people of the world had one language they could all understand. Today, we call it the language of mathematics and science. Scientists and technological innovators use it to understand one another and this has pushed science and technology far ahead. The ancient people made bricks for the project instead of stone, and manufactured tar instead of using mortar. They were becoming sophisticated in their technology which gave them the potential to realise their ambition.

Their motive was to make a name for themselves, over and against the reality of God. So God intervened, brought about linguistic confusion and disrupted their project. As a result the people of the world were scattered.

Here is a warning of the potential dangers of technology if it is used without spiritual and moral reflection. The French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul warns how we can be trapped in our technology. Once a technology leaves the laboratory to be applied in the world, it cannot be stopped. It often causes more problems, which require more technology to solve them. And so the story goes on.

Worse is the reliance on “technique” which is a way of living that tends to dehumanise us. At the heart of our redemption and human flourishing is relationship, not technique.

In his thoughtful book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, American social and media analyst Neil Postman traces the development of technology in human history. In simple tool-using cultures, technology existed in a humble way as a servant of man. Tools were not intrusive and did not contradict the worldview of people. They were designed to enhance the natural actions of human beings such as speaking, seeing, walking, and so on.

This simple stage of human history gave way to what Postman calls the “Technocratic Age,” from the 16th century onwards, when science and technology began to be a major perspective of life and existence. What machines could do became quite far removed from natural human movements and actions. Postman claims that we are now moving from this age to the age of “technopoly,” where technology has become the only totalitarian perspective of life.

James Burke and Robert Ornstein point to the Faustian bargain we have made with the technologists, and the double edge of the “axe” (technology) which first changes our environment, then our thinking and our values. Finally it changes us. It is how technology has the power to change us that is worrying.

Even Schwab warns of potential dangers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He warns of how power relations may change causing new security concerns, social inequalities may rise and society may fragment. Our ideas of what it means to be human may also be challenged by the new technologies. Schwab tries to mitigate the dangers by saying that we need to remind ourselves that these new technologies are developed by people for people.

However, the threat to what it means to be human is still there. Already our behaviour is changing, including the way we relate and communicate with one another. We simply have to see how the omnipresent mobile phone is changing families, offices, and churches, disrupting normal human interactions.

Moreover, the technology of the internet is already being taken over by criminal elements and other powerful agents who want to control people’s behaviour and choices. Manuel Castells, a leading sociologist of information technology, already warned about this some 20 years ago.

Will it be a brave new world or one with greater potential for rebellion against God and evil? While we live in the throes of another new industrial revolution, we need to brace ourselves for its impact in our social institutions and private lives by going back to the roots of our faith.

Christians have differing opinions on how to respond to the major technological changes. Some (like tech optimist Douglas Estes) hold to a utilitarian view that we are still in control of our technologies and can use them for good. Others (like philosopher Albert Borgmann) stand at the other pole, taking a deterministic view that we have already lost control of technology which threatens our identity and well-being. Many are not clear as to how to respond.

Whatever our view, we must continue to believe that our Saviour is Jesus Christ, not technology, that the goal in life is to glorify God and to be perfected in love (1 John 4:18). We must continue to find life in community and look forward to the new heaven and new earth that will be created by God.

Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.