In a world going increasingly digital, with the ability to compose sonatas and paint with new technologies, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications is looking at how digital culture is shaping us as individuals and as a society.

Connection must go beyond digital realm

  • June 8, 2023

The fathers and godfathers of artificial intelligence are beginning to worry about a future in which the machines no longer need or want us. But in the same week that leading artificial intelligence researchers and scientists warned of future “risk of extinction” embedded in their own technology, the Vatican took on the more immediate threats they see in what our digital culture is already doing to us.

“Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI (artificial intelligence) should be a global priority, alongside other societal risks such as pandemics and nuclear war,” reads a statement issued May 31 by Canadian AI “godfather” Geoffrey Hinton, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman (maker of ChatGPT) and Google Deepmind CEO Demis Hassabis.

But rather than the astonishing ability of these new technologies to compose sonatas, write poetry and screenplays and paint new canvasses, the deep thinkers at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications worry about what we’re doing to each other in the relatively simple and established technological realm of social media.

On publication, “Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media” was reduced by many outlets to more tweets about what bishops and priests should not tweet. But its 20 pages are actually a serious inquiry into how digital culture is shaping us as individuals and as a society. With cell phones as extensions of our bodies and minds, are we losing the ability to contemplate, to meditate, to pray? Aren’t those abilities that make us human?

“One significant cognitive challenge of digital culture is the loss of our ability to think deeply and purposefully,” reads the 13,000-word document. “We scan the surface and remain in the shallows, instead of deeply pondering realities… Without silence and the space to think slowly, deeply and purposefully, we risk losing not only cognitive capacities but also the depth of our interactions, both human and divine.”

As someone who has brought young men into religious formation in recent years, Franciscan Fr. Pierre Charland has noticed that the digital natives often show up without extensive or meaningful experience of silence, contemplation and deeper forms of prayer.

“It was brought up at our last general chapter (global meeting of Franciscans) as something that our order needs to look at, and our Minister General brings it up regularly,” Charland, minister provincial of the Order of the Friars Minor in Canada, told The Catholic Register.

Canadian Franciscans send their young men off to Killarney, Ireland, for the novitiate — their first time fully embedded in a form of religious life that dates back to the 13th century.

“For some of these guys it is an experience of learning to live without a lot of that instant, social media gratification — learning to live in another rhythm, without all of that,” Charland said. “Relationships may be slower to form, but they may have deeper roots. They demand a dimension of patience and time, and they are built through interaction. It’s another way of living really — part of the Franciscan experience.”

“‘Silence’ in this case can be compared to a ‘digital detox,’ ” writes the Dicastery for Communications team behind “Towards Full Presence.” “The desire to be in relationship with others and with the Other — God — remains a fundamental human need, one that is also evident in the desire for connectedness in digital culture.”

At no point does the Vatican document condemn social media or any of the digital technologies that have changed forever how we relate to others and understand our world. Rather they praise the opportunities Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. have afforded us.

“Digital culture has immeasurably increased our access to others,” the document says.

“It’s nice to see someone highlight some of the benefits, some of the positives,” said social media researcher and psychologist Wendy Ellis.

Ellis’ research and teaching at King’s University College in London, Ont., concentrates on the effects of social media consumption on children and adolescents. She is not naive about the harm many experience on social media.

“There has to be this recognition of the dangers,” she said. “We try to teach children to have an understanding for themselves, to recognize that ‘Hey, social media is not helping me right now. It’s not helping my mental health. It’s not helping my relationships. It’s time to step back…’ Adults have to recognize the same thing.”

Forbidding teenagers anything, particularly something as ubiquitous as social media, is an exercise in utter futility, said Ellis.

“It’s not about stopping them using social media. It’s about recognizing when there are dangers, what those dangers look like, when it’s time to take a break,” she said. “There are a lot of bad things that happen. ... But there are so many good things too. There are so many tools that kids use for their academics, for their social lives, for their identity.”

In a nod to Pope Francis, “Towards Full Presence” frames its analysis of social media and digital culture with the parable of the Good Samaritan — just as the Pope had used this same parable to frame his arguments in his encyclical on social and political life, Fratelli Tutti.

“The parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us… to confront the digital ‘throw-away culture’ and help each other to step out of our comfort zone by making a voluntary effort to reach out to the other,” says the document.

For Franciscans who take on vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, nothing could be more antithetical to religious life than a throw-away culture. This preferential option for the careful, slow and quiet business of face-to-face conversations and relationships has become the gift Franciscans have to offer the world, said Charland.

“People have come to realize that spiritual experience requires that you pull away, that you take some time — simple things like silence,” he said.

From a psychologist’s perspective, Ellis looks at social media both in terms of what it adds to a person’s life and what it takes away.

“You can have this online community,” she said. “But not at the expense of the in-person.”

Spawned by global, corporate capitalism, it is unsurprising that social media has become an arena for competition and one-upmanship, where influencers wield economic, social and political power over their vast pools of followers, said the Dicastery for Communications.

“How can we help heal a toxic digital environment?” the authors ask. “How can we promote hospitality and opportunities for healing and reconciliation?”

It begins, perhaps, with a clear-eyed understanding that social media platforms are businesses and that if you’re not paying you are the product. Understanding social media is the beginning of behaving rationally, not emotionally, on your phone.

“We need to understand how digital media functions, how it’s funded, what its goals are — the manipulation, as well,” said Charland. “There remains so much underground that we are not aware of, or not seeing. It’s not openly spoken about. I think Friars would need to gain as clear an understanding (as possible) of the functioning of social media.”

Being Christian online is certainly possible, but it consists of much more than tweeting Bible verses or posting pious sentiments, according to the Vatican document. A Christian doesn’t opt for one-way communication when dialogue is possible. A Christian listens first.

“How we say something is just as important as what we say,” said “Towards Full Presence.”

Like Jesus responding to the lawyer’s invitation to an argument over who is or isn’t a neighbour, the Dicastery for Communication urges Christians on social media to “Tell it with a story.”

“Digital culture is replete with information and its platforms are mostly chaotic environments. Stories offer a structure, a way to make sense of the digital experience. More ‘enfleshed’ than a mere argument and more complex than the superficial and emotional reactions often encountered on digital platforms, they help to restore human relationships by offering people the opportunity to convey their stories or share those that have transformed them.”

If we are not able to share our stories and to receive the stories of others when we’re on social media, then the extinction event may have already occurred. It is stories — not arguments, emojis, gifs, threads or flames — that make us human. Without stories, we may continue to exist on social media, but our humanity has been extinguished. This humanity is not property to be hoarded but love to be shared.

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