The good and bad of modern communications

  • May 8, 2009
{mosimage}Nobody reading this needs a lesson from me about how deeply modern communications technologies have penetrated our lives. You probably watch television, listen to the radio, keep in touch with family, friends and business colleagues by telephone, and you likely have a cell phone.

Even if you don’t toil on a computer to make a living, you may have one at home for everything from online banking to social networking. You might also use your computer to keep up with church news: the Vatican recently launched its own YouTube channel with a message from Pope Benedict XVI.

With the approach of the Catholic Church’s World Social Communications Day, on May 24, we’ll likely be hearing sermons and reading reports in church media about the undeniably phenomenal impact, for good and ill, of all this gadgetry on the contemporary world. The note struck by much of this Christian commentary, I suspect, will be along the lines of Pope Benedict’s YouTube address: friendly and open to new digital communications, but sensibly wary about the new stress, alienation and bad influence they can introduce into everyday life.

“These technologies are truly a gift to humanity and we must endeavour to ensure that the benefits they offer are put at the service of all human individuals and communities, especially those who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable,” the pontiff said on YouTube. Our very nature is stamped by  “the God of communication and communion” to desire ever-larger circles of relationships with other people and with the information matrix that surrounds us.

But if these new technologies are to fulfill their true destiny in God, the Pope continues,  “all users will avoid the sharing of words and images that are degrading of human beings, that promote hatred and intolerance, that debase the goodness and intimacy of human sexuality or that exploit the weak and vulnerable.”

The danger will always be there, he said, to substitute web-surfing and Internet relationships for friendship and community in the real world.

“If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development.”

Despite these and other warnings, the fundamental tone of Benedict’s message is warm and approving. As someone whose working life, and much leisure time, is spent in front of a digital screen, I appreciate the Pope’s warm welcome to new media: Computers and the Internet have indeed eased and enriched my writing jobs for magazines, newspapers and this journal. And I appreciate his admonitions. Because we’re human, we’ll always be tempted to waste time mindlessly roaming the Internet, and that’s a temptation we must all resist.

But while World Social Communications Day offers a good occasion for Catholics to think about both the blessings and curses of new media, it should also be a time for giving mind to those people who are cut off from the opportunities these media present. I am thinking of the many millions in China and Iran and other authoritarian countries whose governments censor Internet access and use.

There are millions more throughout the world who cannot afford computers, cell phones and such, or who live in regions where the digital infrastructure needed to support these devices does not exist. And as long as the principal language of the Internet continues to be English, millions of other people in Asia, Africa and Latin America will be excluded from the so-called digital revolution.

It is, after all, a revolution that mainly benefits citizens of the wealthy countries. For that reason, it is a phenomenon which forcefully underscores the basic social and economic injustice that prevails in the world today. However bewitched or oppressed by our own surfeit of technology we may be, we will miss an essential point of World Social Communications Day if we ignore the issue of international justice raised by the very existence of the electronic gadgets that surround us.

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