Steel Soldiers

As the U.S. economy recovers from its slump, the employment rate continues to lag behind. The statistics indicate that we are not creating new jobs, and the political rhetoric about employment grows ever more hysterical. I was thinking about this recently as I went to my local Home Depot to buy some bathroom tiles. I noticed something odd: I couldn't find a single human being to tell me where the tile department was. And once I finally got there, I spent fifteen minutes trying to find what I needed before a woman in the familiar orange apron finally showed up. After that, I had to face the real challenge: one checkout line with ten people in it. But off to the side stood a battery of machines like steel soldiers -- the computerized self-check-out stations. Now, computers aren't my strong suit. But I made it through, even though the machine barked back at me a few times when I made a mistake. I signed the screen and was off. I thought, "I could get used to this." The following week, checking in at the airport, I made my way over to the one attendant at the counter and started to ask a question. "Go to the machine," she responded. Sure enough, there was another battery of steel soldiers. After some confusion, the machine took my information, answered my questions, and printed out two boarding passes. Upstairs, I scanned my ticket over a machine and was on my way with remarkably pleasant thoughts about technology. If you haven't encountered these steel check-in machines, you still know what I'm talking about. When was the last time you talked to a live operator? I'm convinced there aren't any -- just haunting computer voices. But my point is simply this: When we blame the government for not doing more to get the employment rate up, we're missing a trend right under our noses. The steel soldiers are doing many of the jobs that human beings used to do in this country. It's just like what happened with the Industrial Revolution: Machines come in, efficiency goes up, and jobs go down. The tragedy, of course, is for the people who lose their jobs and who have to be helped into new areas of employment. As I've said before, there's a lot about this trend that's positive. Productivity is showing remarkable gains. People who work in the field of technology have a greater opportunity to use their God-given gifts, and they are making more money. And despite the frustration that many of us face trying to get all these machines to work, the time they save makes it worth it. All the same, we need to be on our guard against a negative result of the technological revolution. In a society full of machines, it's easy for us to become more isolated from each other, and statistics confirm that this is already happening. For many of us, the sense of community is limited to Internet forums, where we converse with faceless strangers with whom we never have to interact in any meaningful way. Ultimately, we become more wrapped up in ourselves and less interested in others. Increased creativity and productivity are blessings for which we should be grateful. But we must be careful not to turn over to the steel soldiers a job they were never designed to do: filling the needs of the human heart. For further reading and information: Wayne Cole, "Poll: Unemployment to Stay Stubbornly High in 2004," Reuters, 15 October 2003. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030305, "A Better Kind of Space: Real Community and Virtue." BreakPoint Commentary No. 030304, "More Than Duct Tape." BreakPoint Commentary No. 030728, "The Real Reality of Ramona." "Habits of the High-Tech Heart: A BreakPoint Conversation with Quentin Schultze," BreakPoint Online, 3 October 2003. Quentin Schultze, "Living Virtuously in the Information Age," lecture from Calvin College's January Series. Monica Soto, "Too much technology diminishes work relationships, author says," Seattle Times, 8 August 2003.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary