This article first appeared on March 17, 2020, in Public Discourse, the journal of the Witherspoon Institute, and was republished with permission.
The COVID-19 pandemic is catalyzing trends in the economy that have been incubating for some time. Three basic elements form the dynamics at the core of economic development in the twenty-first century: virtualization, automation, and incarnation. The first two of these have received the majority of the attention, both popularly and in policy discussions. But as the coronavirus pandemic brings our mortality and physicality to the fore, it is important to do justice to the demands of our embodied human nature.
The threat of the coronavirus has accelerated the adoption of some features that have been increasingly prevalent in the workplace. This is especially true for higher educational institutions, many of which moved quickly to fully online learning for a significant period, if not the remainder, of the spring semester. The virtualization of higher education has been in progress for a long time; but the quick decision by many schools to go fully online, even if only temporarily, may well demonstrate how merely rationalistic and transactional perspectives pervade higher education today. The virtualization of higher education means one thing if it is seen as one approach within the larger contexts of trade-offs in individual cases. It means something quite different if it becomes the new ideal and industry standard, manifesting itself as an educational best practice. In the short term we are seeing significant and rapid adoption of online and virtual learning environments. If these are temporary measures, we can see the obvious advantages. If this temporary solution transforms into long-term practices, such virtualization needs to be tempered by the advantages as well as disadvantages of face-to-face instruction.
Automation is perhaps less obvious than virtualization during a pandemic, but no less significant. If human, that is, biological, elements of the production and distribution process can be minimized or even eliminated, the risks of infection are likewise reduced. It seems safer to order food from an automated kiosk or an app on your phone rather than from a live server. The risk of infectious disease highlights one aspect of automation which has always made more efficient and labor-intensive tools attractive. Robots and drones do not get sick and do not spread diseases the way humans do. Neither do they sleep or require healthcare.
If something can be virtualized, it will be. If it can be automated, it will be. And in some cases, it will be virtually automated. It is not even necessary that the virtual and automated substitutes be superior or even equal to what they aim to replace or complement. Like all potential substitutes, they will be judged according to their relative merits, including a wide variety of costs and trade-offs. Certain forms of automation may in fact win out over higher quality options because they are relatively more cost-effective. What Intel did with Celeron processors in the microchip market is what can happen more broadly with automation relative to other, more traditional, approaches. As the recently deceased Clayton Christensen popularized the story, Intel’s Celeron chip was inferior in every way to the offerings of their competitors, except one: price. A virtual assistant may not be able to do things as well or as reliably as a human, but Alexa doesn’t sleep and is more affordable for the everyday person than a personal assistant. Interacting with Alexa also won’t lead to contracting COVID-19.
Like all endeavors, there will be overreach and corresponding pushback, unreasonable expectations and utopian hopes, cynical alarmism and retrograde pessimism. If the only dynamics driving economic development today were virtualization and automation, there would indeed be significant cause for concern. And to the extent that these forces run roughshod over or undermine the third key dynamic—incarnation—they will founder on reality.
Indeed, the promises of virtualization as well as automation are often exaggerated, as are their dangers. An automated ordering kiosk at McDonald’s or Costco may not bring you face-to-face with human waitstaff, but someone still (at least for now) needs to spray down the touchscreen with antibacterial disinfectant. And humans (at least for now) still need to make the food, or at least deliver it. It is possible for an increasingly virtualized and automated economy to actually be more humane, but only if such an economy does justice to the human realities of incarnation and relation.
Human beings are not brains-on-sticks or heat-producing batteries kept immobilized in a virtual world like The Matrix. Neither are we simply the consuming sluggards of Wall-E. If the incarnational realities of humanity are ignored, marginalized, or even intentionally transgressed, then we do run the real risk of realizing an inhumane society. This is precisely why the dynamics of virtualization and automation need to be properly understood in relationship to incarnation, to the physical and natural aspects of human reality.
It is at this point that the fundamental understanding of the human person becomes so important, and where disciplines like philosophy and theology have a primary role to play. Whether we are dealing with a Platonic “featherless biped” or Adam Smith’s “animal that trades,” the conception of the human person that is either more or less explicitly developed within the context of a social order has profound implications for the potential of that system to promote human flourishing or suffering.
St. Francis of Assisi’s moniker for his own body, “Brother Ass,” aptly captures the ambivalence of humanity toward its incarnate nature. The body is the occasion for desires and demands. It requires sleep, food, and shelter. It can be a drag on our attention and our aspirations. But it is also, fundamentally, a gift, one that ought to be appreciated and stewarded. Virtualization and automation that release us from demoralizing and degrading activities ought to be embraced and welcomed. There are forms of physical activity that can, as Smith worried, corrupt the human being, which is why he worried about the deleterious moral, spiritual, intellectual, and social consequences for “the man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations.”
As a theologian, my view is that the optimal starting point for forming an anthropology is the truth that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. This biblical perspective of the human person does justice to the realities of suffering and stultification as well as flourishing and ecstasy.
Decades ago, Pope John Paul II observed that the industrialization of the economy “provides grounds for reproposing in new ways the question of human work.” The trends of virtualization and automation, which are made more salient in a time of pandemic, repropose it as well. The encyclical letter Laborem exercens of 1981 is rightly understood within the broader context of John Paul II’s theology of the body. As he writes, “Since work in its subjective aspect is always a personal action, an actus personae, it follows that the whole person, body and spirit, participates in it, whether it is manual or intellectual work.” If integral human development is to be realized, we need to properly understand what each of these terms means and how they relate to one another. This means that what it is to be human, and thus what it means for persons to be in relationship with God, their neighbors, and the rest of the created order, are absolutely fundamental to addressing the challenges of work, economics, and society. This is what John Paul II also referred to as the need for “an authentic human ecology,” a theme picked up especially by Pope Francis.
The challenges and opportunities represented by virtualization and automation are, in this way, occasions to renew our understandings of ourselves and our relationship to eternal and temporal goods. While the Protestant tradition does not have a tradition of social teaching as well developed or organized as that of the Catholic Church, it offers important insights for the incarnational nature of humanity as it relates to economic dynamics. As the great Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck puts it, “the whole person is the image of God,” soul as well as body. He continues: “The human body belongs integrally to the image of God. A philosophy that either does not know or rejects divine revelation always lapses into empiricism or rationalism, materialism or spiritualism. But Scripture reconciles the two.”
If virtualization and automation are to be properly oriented toward humane purposes, then these forces must be chastened by the incarnational realities of human nature. Part of this must come from the theoretical side, with greater understanding of the interrelationships between humanity and technology. But part must also come to expression in the work of business leaders, entrepreneurs, and laborers who are inspired by providing real goods and services to other human beings.
In the short term, during the coronavirus pandemic, there will be many people who experience inconvenience and disruption as their work is suspended or moves online. Many others, from retail and grocery workers to physicians and healthcare providers, are facing the much more concrete dangers and challenges of serving others in a direct, physical way. Those who have the privilege to be able to work remotely and virtually, even for a short time, ought to take this opportunity to appreciate the gift offered to human beings in our incarnated nature. And we ought to all likewise strive for an integrated and complementary expression of virtualization and automation as they relate to a truly humane society, one in which human beings live as embodied image-bearers of what C. S. Lewis called “the weight of glory.”