Monday, 24 January 2011

Benedict getting digital

Apparently this is the 45th World Day of Social Communications and Pope Benedict XVI has issued his message Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age.
benedict xviIt is difficult to read the statement online as I have an aversion to Times New Roman type face on a light brown speckled background. It doesn’t help that I have a 22inch wide screen monitor that makes dense paragraphs of text almost impenetrable. The language of the message is also rather stilted but that may be more to do with the translation.

Nevertheless, the message has some interesting and challenging points to make and is very upbeat. Here is what the Pope says about the opportunities that digital media makes possible.
The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself, so much so that it could be said that we are living through a period of vast cultural transformation. This means of spreading information and knowledge is giving birth to a new way of learning and thinking, with unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship.
I’m not sure how ‘new’ these technologies are as they’ve been around for quite a while. I guess viewed from the ancient confines of the Vatican new is a relative term.

The Pope goes on to remind his readers that the medium is there to serve humanity not the other way round.
As with every other fruit of human ingenuity, the new communications technologies must be placed at the service of the integral good of the individual and of the whole of humanity. If used wisely, they can contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being.
There are several mentions of what are perceived to be problems with digital communication.
The clear distinction between the producer and consumer of information is relativized and communication appears not only as an exchange of data, but also as a form of sharing. This dynamic has contributed to a new appreciation of communication itself, which is seen first of all as dialogue, exchange, solidarity and the creation of positive relations. On the other hand, this is contrasted with the limits typical of digital communication: the one-sidedness of the interaction, the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence.
Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world. In the search for sharing, for "friends", there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.
I don’t think Benedict is right to say that digital communication is a one-sided interaction; it can be but it does not need to be. I do agree that there is the danger of presenting a false image of oneself. He also has a challenging question which deserves attention for Christians engaging with social media.
Who is my "neighbour" in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there is a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world "other" than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.
I was interested in the Pope’s suggestion that there is a distinctively Christian way of maintaining an online presence.
It follows that there exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others. To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. In these new circumstances and with these new forms of expression, Christian are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).
What most appealed to me in the message was the acknowledgement that the digital world is part of human life and therefore needs to be embraced. This is a very affirming observation for those of us wanting to take engagement seriously.
I would like then to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible. This is not simply to satisfy the desire to be present, but because this network is an integral part of human life. The web is contributing to the development of new and more complex intellectual and spiritual horizons, new forms of shared awareness. In this field too we are called to proclaim our faith that Christ is God, the Saviour of humanity and of history, the one in whom all things find their fulfilment (cf. Eph 1:10).
And there is a reminder that in this area, as in all aspects of human activity, how we engage is itself an important witness to the Gospel we seek to proclaim.
The proclamation of the Gospel requires a communication which is at once respectful and sensitive, which stimulates the heart and moves the conscience; one which reflects the example of the risen Jesus when he joined the disciples on the way to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:13-35). By his approach to them, his dialogue with them, his way of gently drawing forth what was in their heart, they were led gradually to an understanding of the mystery.
One of my reservations about the Pope’s take on this subject is his assumption that digital communication and social media are primarily the preserve of the young. Perhaps his emphasis is dictated by his focus on the upcoming World Youth Day in Madrid. I hope it isn’t a reflection of an ignorance in the corridors of the Vatican that people of all ages are engaging in these networks. However, I want to be positive about the statement and finish with the Pope’s concluding remarks.
In the final analysis, the truth of Christ is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communion and meaning which is reflected in the immense popularity of social networks. Believers who bear witness to their most profound convictions greatly help prevent the web from becoming an instrument which depersonalizes people, attempts to manipulate them emotionally or allows those who are powerful to monopolize the opinions of others. On the contrary, believers encourage everyone to keep alive the eternal human questions which testify to our desire for transcendence and our longing for authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived. It is precisely this uniquely human spiritual yearning which inspires our quest for truth and for communion and which impels us to communicate with integrity and honesty.

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