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Pope Francis and the age of automation

Michael McVeigh |  19 January 2017


Thousands of Australians received an unwelcome Christmas present last year, after the government issued debt-recovery letters to Centrelink clients whose benefits, the letters claimed, had been overpaid.

Pope Francis blesses iPhone photoUp to 1.7 million more letters are being sent out by the government as it makes good on its promise to improve the budget bottom line by trying to claim back some of the money paid out to the country's welfare recipients.

Federal Social Service Minister Christian Porter says the system is working 'incredibly well', and has managed to recover $300 million in overpayments since July. Others, particularly among those who have receive the letters, say the system is working anything but well.

The automated system links the annual income data supplied to the Australian Taxation Office with the payments that have been distributed to people through Centrelink. Rather than taking a fortnightly view of payments, as Centrelink does in determining eligibility, it averages out income over 12 months.

So a person who claimed benefits perfectly legally for six months, and then gained employment, could be incorrectly charged for 'overpayments'. It's then up to that person, not Centrelink, to prove that they haven't been overpaid.

While Porter says they have received only 276 complaints out of the 169,000 review letters sent so far, he refused to reveal how many were disputing the repayments. A Centrelink whistleblower told the Guardian they had reviewed hundreds of disputes, and found only 20 where the debts were genuine.

Those disputing the letters report trying to get in touch with Centrelink to resolve the issues, only to find it impossible to get through due to lack of customer service staff. Others have spoken of emotional distress as a result of repeated phone calls from debt collectors, and former Centrelink staff have spoken of dealing with people who were suicidal.

Many have called for the automated system to be scrapped, but the government is standing by it. One of the reasons for this may be that the system is doing just what it's designed to do — trying to force people away from welfare reliance by making it more onerous.


"Technology is far from neutral. It tends to create a framework which ends up conditioning people and limiting their possible options along lines dictated by the most economically and politically powerful."


One of the less discussed aspects of Pope Francis' environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, is its critique of technology as a 'neutral' tool for society. Technology, he argues, is far from neutral. In fact, technology tends to create a framework which ends up conditioning people and limiting their possible options along lines dictated by the most economically and politically powerful.

'Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race, that in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive — a lordship over all.' Technology isn't of itself evil, but it has a logic that makes us less human, diminishing 'our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one's alternative creativity'.

Relying solely on technology to solve problems — whether it's environmental problems, or problems of helping people out of poverty — removes consideration of other elements. As Francis writes, 'The specialisation which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today's world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests.'

We're seeing these automated behavioural adjustment systems more and more in our modernised societies. Another example is the public transport system, which moved from a system where employees sell tickets directly to customers to one that places the burden on the customer to serve themselves. Instead of serving customers, employees of the system are now tasked with enforcing compliance. The system uses the fear of penalties, and public embarrassment from inspectors, to force people to navigate its technological complexities themselves — something that can be particularly difficult for the elderly and people with disabilities.

While on the surface, this seems a 'neutral' development — it's a good thing for people to pay for public transport, and it should be made as affordable as possible — it also has the effect of making the system less humane. There was a story last year of a Melbourne woman who was threatened with a fine because she offered her spare pass to a homeless person who was being harassed by inspectors. Other videos of inspectors harassing customers have emerged, taken by patrons who are tired of intimidating tactics used to enforce compliance.

The result — a system where both the enforcers and the passengers are dehumanised — is exactly in line with what Francis predicted when technology is used by those in power to enforce a set of behaviours. More importantly, these types of systems do nothing to improve the lives of the most vulnerable. A Victoria University report last year found that a large number of disadvantaged high school students in Melbourne were skipping school because they couldn't afford to pay for public transport, or the fines they'd received for riding without a ticket. What space is there in an impersonal system to consider the future of the young person who can't afford the bus to school?

One hopes the government might feel some voter pressure to wind back its current debt recovery plan, although given those targeted are generally among those with the least voice in the country that hope might not be well grounded. But the likely outcome isn't going to necessarily be fewer people in need, as they might hope, but a much more adversarial system, and a greater burden on those who are already vulnerable.


Michael McVeighMichael McVeigh is the editor of Australian Catholics magazine and senior editor at Jesuit Communications.



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Submitted comments

Difficult to believe that in this country that young people going to school can't afford the bus fare. Sounds more like irresponsible parenting.

john frawley 21 January 2017

Your article, Michael, puts me in mind of another group being damaged by these processes. The "I.T" people. They are almost invisible. They are enormously powerful and their organization cannot work without them. They know a lot of arcane things others do not understand. And they are the wranglers and associates of the magic and mystery of preternatural machines called computers. The powerful computer is their power base. Some of them have chosen to work with machines as a less anxiety provoking option than working face to face with people. They are not there to critique the morality or decency of what they process. Many would use the Nuremberg defense of just following orders. But as can torturers be damaged by their job so can some of these "geeks". This is not an accusation, but an observation based on some I have known and with whom I have worked. Some carry the scars of workplace injury and underdeveloped interpersonal skills.

Michael D. Breen 21 January 2017

Check out the SBS series "Trepalium' ... "No job, no future, just hope". What stopped cloning humans with animals ... Ethics? What would stop the over-technologicalisation of our lives? It's a debate that needs to be prioritised ... I was chaplain in an outpatients healthcare dept. when it became "computerised". I witnessed the de-humanisation of everyone ... Patients, carers, admin staff, clinicians, taxi drivers etc ... And the distress it caused throughout the transition. Human intimacy in vulnerability was definitely compromised. It was awful.

Mary Tehan 23 January 2017

In the health,welfare correctional and the educational fields the"human face" is so important. In the 1960's there was a great change in all these fields away from the institutions of the past. It is specially true in the "law and order" field. How can professionals and volunteers really express "agape" love through technology without real empathy and dedication.

John bowstead ozanne 23 January 2017

A very nice exposé of one of the results of disconnection in our supposedly 'connected' Brave New World. Increasing mechanicalization and depersonalisation of our society was analysed by Philip Sherrard in a philosophic masterpiece: "The Rape of Man and Nature" (1987). Then, last year "Humanitarian Cosmology" was posted on the web (free), arguing that: "A new, interdisciplinary, cosmic vision is needed; one that defers to First Peoples’ integrated, anthropophilic wisdom. It’s not too late to restore a more truthful and personalizing public perception and re-locate science and technology as our valued helpers, rather the lost leaders they are now proving to be." To reverse the present misanthropic trend will require commitment by everyone who thinks deeply and who loves humankind.

Dr Marty Rice 24 January 2017

And it's not just technology that's impersonal - what about bureaucracy? Try appealing the amount of a harsh parking fine via letters and you get a response spewed out by an officer using the form letter for 'Fob off enquiry about fine'. You wind up writing to the State Debt Recovery Office who then issue another standard response that essentially says, 'Tough - if you don't like it,front up to court'. So bureaucratic systems can mimic machines too and can be just as impersonal and impossible to reason with. the increasing mechanisation of our lives in both these ways is going to leave individuals feeling helpless against The System and society feeling more and more disengaged.

A George 22 February 2017

All minor matters compared to the anyday breakthrough to artificial intelligence ( AI). We should all look at those working on it and the extraordinary effect on life and faith. There is already a team in the Vatican actively engaged in the field. Anyone seeking early understanding will find a variety of speakers on Ted Talks online.

NameTony Knight 06 March 2017

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