Our Digital Future

When Pope Francis remarked last month that the Internet was “a gift from God,” his comments may have seemed a little tardy. After all, the Internet has been with us in one form or another for decades, and it is such a ubiquitous part of our lives that pronouncements pro or con seem moot. No matter what you may think of it, the Internet is here to stay.

On further reflection, however, the pope’s words come at an appropriate cultural moment. The arrival of smartphones and tablets has introduced a whole new mode of social interaction. Online dialogue, which has never been known for its charity, has taken a horrific turn, with some anonymous Twitter users harassing women online and even threatening rape. The National Catholic Reporter chose to shut down its comments section last month because of the high level of vitriol. Meanwhile, even Hollywood is starting to question our digital addictions. Spike Jonze’s film “Her” presents a dystopian look at a lonely man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system.

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Mr. Jonze might be surprised to find himself in agreement with Pope Francis, but they share some of the same concerns. “The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity,” the pope said in his message for World Communications Day. “This is something truly good,” but “the desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors, from those closest to us.” This digital isolation will only grow more acute as technology progresses. Imagine being attached to your computer at all times, whether through your watch or your glasses. Genuine human encounters will only be more difficult in a society filled with digital barriers.

So is the Internet truly a divine gift? Yes. Ask the elderly living on their own, who can watch their grandchildren grow up on Facebook even if they live in another town. Ask the parents of a soldier in Afghanistan, who can look their son or daughter in the eye while talking to them on Skype. These digital interactions will never replace human encounters, but they help to cultivate human connections. The writers among us may romanticize the age of letter writing, when correspondents opened up their hearts on the page, but surely they too would have embraced a technology that allowed them to speak to their beloved face-to-digital-face.

Even online communities, often derided as digital echo chambers, can serve to build community if moderated appropriately. Social media have been a source of genuine spiritual counsel and nourishment for many people. One recent discussion convened by an editor of America explored where readers find God. “In the suffering of my daughter who has cancer. I see his joy, his peace and his love,” one reader wrote on Facebook. Another posted to Twitter: “In the colors of the goldfinch’s wings. Today was the first time I ever thought about God’s design of them.” To be sure, there are serious problems with Web sites that allow people to air their desires anonymously and without consequences. This is a sign of the sinful world that we live in. The Internet gives us a shocking look at the work of the evil spirit in our midst.

The Web is an unusually effective mirror, one that reflects human nature in surprising and scary ways. Perhaps no human invention to date has such potential to bring us together and tear us apart. Parents face a gamut of new choices and responsibilities related to the gift of the Internet. It will be their job to ensure that it enhances, not diminishes family life and to protect their children. The church, through practical and ethical guidance, should be prepared to assist them to assume this evolving burden.

Making sure the Internet builds community instead of destroying it will fall to a new generation of digital curators. These people will need to be good conversationalists with attractive personalities, but also an instinct for finding common ground. Gatekeepers will also be necessary to dive into the maw of digital data and separate the gold from the dross. Some of them will work for traditional news operations, but no institutional affiliation is necessary. This is already happening on places like Twitter and Tumblr, but with varying degrees of success. Training digital curators and finding a business model to support them will be necessary if the tech revolution is to truly take root.

If the Internet is a gift from God, then it falls upon us to nurture that gift. As a Catholic media ministry, America is well aware of that responsibility and the great challenge it presents. The skills required to foster a true digital revolution are indeed unusual: part journalist, part diplomat, with a minister’s eye for the troubled soul. The Catholic media may be uniquely positioned to serve in this role. Whether we succeed will depend on the daring and creativity of our best practitioners.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tom Wilson
3 years 9 months ago
There's a Twilight Zone episode entitled, "It's a Good Life," in which a young boy with the supernatural power to destroy at will has taken over a town. The boy demands that everyone "think good thoughts," but what is good is determined only by the boy who serves as the "gatekeeper" of good/bad, the community "moderator." And so, the people spend their time talking about how good everything is, how good everything the boy does is, even as absurd as to say how good it was that the boy had destroyed most of the town and its people. You have to take the bad with the good with the Internet inasmuch as you have to take the bad and the good in any medium of society. When you start inserting gatekeepers and moderators, as the author suggests are necessary; unelected gatekeepers and moderators and censors, you end up with tyranny. Comments on the NCR website were suspended because the moderators and the blog authors did not like what was being said. They weren't "good" comments in the opinion of the censors. It claimed that the comments were vile and hateful, but in fact what was vile were the acts that the commenters were discussing, not the comments themselves. In any case, censorship is never the answer to hateful speech; NCR might stop the comments that it doesn't like, but that will only leave the choir to preach to. Counter-dialogue, attempts to change hearts and minds is the answer.
Stanley Kopacz
3 years 9 months ago
Comments at NCR were NOT suspended due to disagreement over viewpoint. Conservative and traditional comments were always tolerated at NCR if they stuck to arguing the subject. But there were a lot of pure ad hominem and sexually related insults. If someone acted like that at a gathering in my house, I'd throw them out the door.
Tom Wilson
3 years 9 months ago
Most of the sexually related "insults" were no more than statements of biological fact. That some are not happy to hear about how human anatomy and physiology work is not a good reason to suspend comments. But when the facts can't be disputed, then what's left but to demand that the fact-tellers be silenced?
Stanley Kopacz
3 years 9 months ago
If you had ears like an elephant, it might be a biological fact, but I'd be too polite to tell you.
Tom Wilson
3 years 9 months ago
If my ears wear like an elephant because I did not have sense enough to stop pulling on them and that pulling on them was known to adversely affect my hearing, would you allow your politeness to stop you from alerting/reminding people about that adverse effect, or would you just let people continue do that to themselves? The problem with political correctness is that it makes people repress potentially important and helpful information/opinion.
Stanley Kopacz
3 years 9 months ago
I would feel more comfortable giving advice to a homosexual person about their sexuality if I were one myself. Since I am not, I keep my mouth shut. I trust that if someone is born homosexual and is a disciple of Christ, they can figure out how to be a Christian homosexual better than I can. I, as most Americans, am not comfortable attacking people based on characteristics with which they were born. And it's not about being politically correct. It's about being civil. If your ears are large from pulling on them, you are probably already aware of and possibly fighting your obsession and don't need my input. Your rationale could be used by any bully. I saw what was happening over at NCR and it wasn't friendly advice.
Dennis Coday
3 years 9 months ago
National Catholic Reporter suspended its commenting feature. I just wrote an update for readers here: http://ncronline.org/node/70036. We hope to restore the feature by Feb. 12. Dennis Coday Edtior, NCR
Tom Wilson
3 years 9 months ago
Hello Dennis - I was once banned from a liberal website for taking the Church's position that homosexual acts are sinful and that sexual attraction to someone of the same sex is intrinsically disordered. In the instances in which I was banned, it was because the majority of readers disagreed with my (the Church's) position (or felt insulted by my comments) and flagged my comments as "offensive" in violation of the site's commenting rules. Will NCR now take the position that commenters that favorably discuss the Church's teaching on this matter as well as other controversial political topics will be banned? If that's the case, perhaps you should make it clear in the "About" section of your site that the comments will be censored based on majority opinion or conservative content. If preaching to the choir and feel-good dialogue amongst people of like minds is what you seek, you should let your audience know that, and those of us who seek intelligent discussion to hash out those controversial issues will go elsewhere.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 9 months ago
This sense of being "always connected" is going to change the way we know ourselves and our reality in ways that we have only begun to glimpse. The internet phenomena has been compared to the invention of the printing press in its impact upon culture. I don't doubt that. Our brains are definitely going to change in order to adapt. We will again need to become more oral/visual and less dependent upon the written word. All this information has made me more selective in where I put my attention. So much is drivel. But I was looking at some old books the other night and they too looked like so much drivel. Looking out the window is a relief, and maybe that's the point.
Jonathan Lace
3 years 9 months ago
Msgr. Paul Tighe's recent comments about social media are also relevant to the Pope's message. http://techrament.com/2013/11/05/social-media-spirituality-and-the-signs-of-the-times/
J Cosgrove
3 years 9 months ago
America's editors censors the comments on its site. Several of my comments have been eliminated or never posted over the last few years and none of them have been offensive. They apparently expressed opinions the editors did not like.
Tammy Gottschling
3 years 9 months ago
To the Editors re. "To be sure, there are serious problems with Web sites that allow people to air their desires anonymously and without consequences. This is a sign of the sinful world that we live in. The Internet gives us a shocking look at the work of the evil spirit in our midst." If Catholicism teleological framing is Augustine's definition of evil: "Evil is not something but a lack of" (I have to refresh on Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica challenging Augustinian theology utilizing Aristotle philosophy and Negative theology) I'm not sure what I think about how psychology been utilized for technological algorithms when it comes to personhood. I'm not sure if I agree with Jesuits at this point (respectfully). I still have a lot to learn about Noosphere but lean toward Thomas Merton's more balanced approach, at present. Edit: I should mention I utilize technology 7days/12hours. But, I'm looking forward to finding and meeting whom I consider my closest friendships on planet Earth. I don't know when this will happen but I have hope it will happen. .

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