Online, we encounter suffering from afar: how do we respond?

It has become a shockingly ordinary part of everyday life: A glance at the news brings an intimate encounter with a bloody victim. Once we would see only a grainy newspaper photograph or an edited clip on television. Now our laptops and smartphones immerse us in the full unfolding of human trauma. We watch a shocked 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, pulled from the rubble and covered in dust from a bombing in Aleppo, blood running down his face, sit stunned and silent on an orange rescue chair. Livestreamed video puts us in the seat beside Philando Castile, horrified as we watch the blood spread across his shirt and witness the life fade from his eyes. Everything good in us screams out to help, yet we cannot.

This feels like a moral failure, as if we are guilty bystanders rather than good Samaritans. But even that feeling points to the fact that we are not indifferent. We are moved with compassion but cannot easily act in this space. What can we do? Perhaps the parable—which often does duty as a touchpoint for moral responsibility—can provide the means to discern what is new about the moral space of the internet and how to act morally in it.

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On the Road From Jerusalem to Jericho

The parable begins with a very specific invocation of space. Jesus speaks of a man traveling “down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” who was robbed, stripped and beaten and left “half dead” on the road. His need is clear and undeniable: He lies naked and bleeding on the road. A priest and a Levite both “come to that place” but refuse to respond. They “passed by on the other side,” avoiding both ritual impurity from the victim’s blood and the risk of tarrying in a dangerous place. The religiously suspect Samaritan, however, “was moved with compassion” and responded by lifting him up, binding his wounds and transporting him to an inn. Jesus tells his interlocutor—and us—to “go and do likewise.”

The parable presumes a very specific moral geography where knowledge of need and the ability to address it are bound together by space, creating a moral obligation amid serious risk. Each of us has the necessary means: eyes to see and hands to help. The moral and theological question is whether we will “show mercy” or “pass by the other side.” This moral geography is, perhaps, primordial, and generally we still presume it is the moral space in which we act.

It has been only a few decades since we gained the ability to quickly become aware of immediate needs outside the sphere of our direct action and only a few years since we could click on such intimate, unedited videos of suffering and need. Philosophers in the Enlightenment era debated the implications of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake for years, but they did not watch a live feed of its victims’ suffering. They debated God’s justice and providence, not human indifference.

Internet Space: A New Moral Geography

The internet enables our eyes to see around the world, but it does not extend the reach of our hands in the same way. Whereas physical space holds knowledge and action together, the internet separates them. The problem here is not disembodiment but the particular construction of moral space. Disembodiment is nothing new. Written text, phone calls, radio and television are all disembodied. Each communication medium constructs a particular form of presence and absence and mediates a certain type of encounter. In order to understand how the internet transforms moral geography we have to look at the details of how it works.

Technologists likes Jaron Lanier point to the importance of the internet’s underlying “packet switching” network architecture. This architecture was inspired in part by the Cold War-era need to build networks that could withstand nuclear attack. The standard networks of the time were hierarchical, like the first telephone systems. They routed data through central switchboards. Attack the switchboard and you disconnect all its connected nodes (e.g., radar sites and missile silos). This weak link could be targeted to disable an entire system. Packet switching addresses this weakness. In such a network, data does not require a fixed connection between two points. Instead, messages are broken into packets, and those packets are sent out into a web of routers that passes them on to other routers on multiple and varied paths to their final destination, with the final recipient reassembling them into the original message. If part of the network is compromised, the packets can be routed through the remaining sections.

What do missile silos have to do with our experience of the internet? This network architecture was designed to free data from the contingencies of geographical space. No particular pathway through the network is crucial; if one is blocked, finding another path is automatic. Once a packet has arrived, the particular route it took is unimportant, and indeed that information is generally discarded. This architecture creates a nonlocal space where the Silicon Valley mantra “information wants to be free” is a fundamental law. As a result, data comes to us from everywhere and our sight is extended far beyond the reach of our hands.

But the internet as we know it is built in many layers on top of this underlying spatial geometry. The search services, social media and apps we use employ this underlying spatial freedom to facilitate individual choice. This is a result of particular historical decisions. When internet companies were seeking a business model that could convert clicks into profits, they chose to offer “free” services paid for by advertising revenue. Thus began the monitoring of our preferences, messages and social circles in order to personalize the ads we are shown. Google tracks the results we choose so it can filter search results in the future—to better give us what we are searching for. This threatens to structure the information we receive according to our preferences and prejudices. All of this is symbolized well by the empty search engine box: what do you want?

As we receive more and more news through our social media feeds, our informal social circles become de facto editorial boards. In a group of about 20 mostly white young people at a recent lecture, all were familiar with an image of Omran Daqneesh, and about two-thirds had watched the video. Far fewer were familiar with Philando Castile, and only one had watched the video of his death. Both were featured prominently in traditional, edited media sites like newspapers and broadcast networks.

We spend time in internet space even when we are out in the world rather than sitting at a computer. The smartphone was no small revolution. Through mobile phone networks, the internet’s reach expanded into just about all spaces and its depth into the capillary times of our lives. Notifications chime and buzz, calling us to turn to this space and attend to social networks constructed by its logic of choice. As a result, the internet writes over the physical geography in which we as embodied persons ostensibly dwell. We are free to choose to be elsewhere by simply glancing at our phones—and we do much more than glance. The very same day that Philando Castile was killed this summer saw the release of Pokémon Go, the augmented reality sensation that literally overwrites physical reality with an engrossing world of intriguing monsters and engaging competition. Parks and public spaces are now filled with people walking about literally viewing the world through smartphone screens.

Space and Choice, Avoidance and Moral Presence

There is no road between Jerusalem and Jericho on the internet. Our location is constituted by choice in an infinite but noncontiguous space. In that space, a victim’s surprising need never confronts us on the road and cannot interrupt our plans and force us to respond. Traditional morality holds that responsibility begins after sense knowledge, that we exercise our moral will in response to what we encounter.

In internet space, moral will enters sooner. We choose not only how to react, but where to be in the first place. When space becomes a matter of choice, our decision about where to place our attention becomes a moral matter. Do we engage and attend to needs and opinions outside our comfort zone? Or do we allow this new power of choice to further insulate us from the world and responsibility?

This new space makes possible more than distraction and avoidance. It can take us closer to need and suffering in places where we could not easily be physically present. Indeed, it can lift us from insulated spaces of privileged safety and place us in the midst of violence and atrocity. On days when millions attend to the suffering of people like Omran and Philando, the internet offers the surprising possibility of fulfilling Elie Wiesel’s call: “Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.” Choice can indeed empower moral presence.

Developing Hands to Act in This New Space

But the problem remains: What can we do? How can we reconnect knowledge and action in the way that physical space does? We need to consider what actions we can take in order that such encounters not reduce us to stunned inaction.

Here again, the specifics of the internet matter, and this provides a potential path forward. It works quite differently than the media flow of television, where stories of suffering must segue to the weekend forecast and exuberant ads for laundry detergent or snack food. On the internet, we get to choose what to do next. This power is often overlooked. I have just watched a man die. What should I do? If it happened in shared physical space, I would certainly pause. We have the freedom to hallow these encounters with a pause, with prayer.

Our next click matters. We can click on to something else or choose to honor what we have witnessed by becoming more deeply informed. It is easy to be swept into the frenzy of updates, commentary (and garbage misinformation). We can instead turn to the underlying issues. There is much to learn about the problems facing the victims and refugees of the Syrian war. There is much to learn about the treatment of black Americans in the criminal justice system. The internet is at our disposal. A search for “racial disparities in criminal justice” or something similar is a simple first step.

Deepened knowledge is not enough. We need to act. We can use the internet for advocacy. While there is much criticism of “hashtag activism,” there is no denying that hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #99Percent have succeeded in focusing sustained public attention on moral injustices that had been ignored for decades.

While online we can also donate to groups that provide disaster and refugee relief. Catholic Relief Services provides food, shelter, education, medical and legal support to Syrian refugees in the Middle East and Europe. One way to respond to the overwhelming scale of need is to resolve to donate some set amount to C.R.S. or another relief and development agency in response to any natural or civil disaster that arises. Make it an immediate response to need that might otherwise go remarked but not acted upon.

Social media activism and online donation have a role to play in civil society. But change requires engaging society offline as well. We might consider our own parish. Do our prayers of the faithful at Mass speak to such violence and injustice with more than anodyne generalities? Does our parish engage local religious and community networks addressing racial justice?

Effective advocacy must also engage decision makers and structures. We could, for example, engage our local police department on the proposals made by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, engage our lawmakers on their votes regarding refugee resettlement. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sponsors the Justice for Immigrants Network, which is currently campaigning for deeper commitment to refugees.

In the end, however, we need to act in an embodied manner: to seek to act with our bodies across the lines of division in society—welcoming refugees, gathering in vigil and standing in solidarity with those most affected by racial injustice.

The internet has profoundly changed the social and moral space of everyday life. It can tempt us to distraction and train us in powerlessness. If, however, we realize the different nature of the new space it creates, we can engage it more critically and creatively. If we consciously connect knowledge and action, we can make these virtual experiences into full moral encounters. If we do so, the internet can extend the range of our moral presence and enable us to practice the Samaritan’s mercy with new scope in a different sort of space.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lisa Weber
8 months 3 weeks ago

We need to be active politically as well as giving to charities that can help people. If we prompt our government to take meaningful action, we indirectly help. Unfortunately, with the current administration, getting meaningful action will be difficult. But perhaps he can be forced out if enough people strive to make it happen.

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