God VS Efficiency

Have you ever felt frustrated talking to a chatbot trying to do an automated customer service? I have. While this technology is getting better, my bad experiences imprinted on me an instinct to avoid chatbots. So whenever possible, I will find ways to interact with a human customer service officer instead.

Now, imagine an elderly person, who already struggles with smartphone apps, trying to use a chatbot service. It must be even more exasperating. 

Yet, as Singapore moves forward with its Smart Nation initiative and promotes digitalisation among businesses for better productivity and efficiency, seniors live in a new reality where they need to learn strange and new technologies just to perform something they used to do effortlessly. In many cases, the human-operated option still exists. But as usage of digital platforms increases, essential service providers like banks would naturally close down more counters or branches to save costs. Thus, seniors find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place because they must either endure longer waiting times or use an unfamiliar technology

To be clear, the government, community and various organisations have launched programmes to help seniors develop digital literacy. This is great and helpful! Even so, my experience with helping my mother (who’s not elderly yet) learn how to use simple apps tells me that it’s unrealistic to expect all seniors to be truly literate with digital services despite repeated coaching. Moreover, platforms do get updated and changed. Even the young ones often got frustrated when Facebook or Windows changed their user interfaces. At least I did. 

To make matters worse, the more digital users there are, the more active cybercriminals become. People of all age groups have been scammed by increasingly sophisticated tricks. The elderly are even more vulnerable. As losses from scams mount and this sort of news makes the headlines more often, many seniors are surely unnerved by possibility of losing all their money while using digital platforms. 

Yet, we cannot turn back from the move towards greater digitalisation either. What then? 

The Catholic Church teaches preferential option for the poor, which means that priority should be given to the poor, vulnerable and powerless. On one level, this is common sense. Those who are in greater need should obviously be given greater attention. On a higher level, there is a theological imperative for this. In Matthew 25, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” As the rejected and crucified Christ, he knew what it meant to be poor and vulnerable. He had also made it clear who should be given greater attention. He spent much more time with the outcasts of the society than with the rich and powerful.

From this viewpoint, we should remind institutions (and ourselves) that the elderly, who built the Singapore we know and love today, should be given the priority. For example, banking services should be designed with the need of the most vulnerable in mind first. This could mean a hybrid approach or a completely different approach to designing digital services that takes into account how seniors think and behave. 

In Matthew 6, Jesus said that we cannot serve both God and wealth at the same time. One must take priority over the other. As we plough on towards greater digitalisation, we need to remember that efficiency is not the most important goal. Rather, it is just a means to serve better the children of God, especially the more vulnerable ones. That is what it means to serve God above all things. 

Furthermore, this is all the more expected of us during this Lenten season. It is, after all, a time to renew our relationship with the Lord. Fasting is good, but Isaiah also said this:

Is not this the fast that I choose
to loose the bonds of injustice
to undo the straps of the yoke
to let the oppressed go freeand to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house?

Erwin Susanto is a staff member of Caritas Singapore. He enjoys arcane discourses on Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in the context of the Ancient Near East. He also enjoys thinking about all kinds of contemporary issues and sometimes wonders if punditry is fun.