Benedict XVI speaks about the new digital technologies with an almost boundless optimism. Last year on World Communications Day, for instance, he claimed that: “they respond to a fundamental desire of people to communicate and to relate to each other. This desire for communication and friendship is rooted in our very nature as human beings and cannot be adequately understood as a response to technical innovations.” But he approaches these new elements of the culture with the categories of traditional Catholic anthropology because they are still timely and true.
Despite obvious problems, the new technologies offer great possibilities of communication and friendship. Listen to Benedict as he explains: “The concept of friendship has enjoyed a renewed prominence in the vocabulary of the new digital social networks that have emerged in the last few years. The concept is one of the noblest achievements of human culture. It is in and through our friendships that we grow and develop as humans. For this reason, true friendship has always been seen as one of the greatest goods any human person can experience.” At the same time, he recognizes the limitations as he cautions us not to let these technologies cut into our face time with our families and friends. He highlights the importance of valuing the more complete, global experience of our fellow human beings through direct contact. His analysis shifts from the glitter of the technologies to the human beings who are using them.
Nicholas Carr has raised another voice of caution in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains. On the one hand, Carr is very aware of the values of data mining and the helpfulness of some of the data that we get from the Internet. On the other hand, he recognizes that he “is not thinking the way that [he] used to think” before the digital media were available. The missing factor is the global experience that used to be a more common accompaniment to human thought.
Now we face mountains of data, selected and processed by ever more sophisticated algorithms through Google or Bing. Information organized according to a letter of the alphabet (just look at an encyclopedia) does not show us the larger context into which it fits. The pope too warns us about the crucial value of this context. As in the passage above, he reminds us of the external context in which we actually live and from which we can be abstracted by our reliance on search engines. Carr points us to the loss of the interior context in which our thoughts find their relationships and their values with the other things on our minds. He is touching on the great richness of human knowing and how it is that we come to know ourselves as we learn about things. We come also to know – in Karl Rahner’s words – “that we are open to something ineffable,” at the same time.
Now, of course, there is real value in some of the data that can be gathered, but evidently a deep human factor is at stake too. As Carr put is: “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning.” Note that word “promotes” – the technology encourages this lesser kind of functioning. He says that we can operate differently but the technology makes us tend not to operate this way. A human being needs to mull things over, to think through the steps of an argument and to be in awe of the infinite horizon that opens before our search. Mary “pondering these things in her heart” is just one such example of a deeply functioning human being. She pondered to see the good in her son’s mission.
In a speech that he was to have given at Rome’s La Sapienza University, Benedict XVI wrote: “the purpose of knowing the truth is to know the good” But the wash of facts on the Internet does not necessarily give us the faculty of reaching the good of things or the Divine Goodness. This is just another way of describing the context that we mentioned above. Another word on the context, from Benedict himself, Catholicism offers “a way of thinking and acting grounded in the Gospel and enriched by the Church’s living tradition.”
This context will not be found on the Internet, especially via the search engines. This is not surprising. The New York Times does not offer a context for most of its news, especially since it almost never does any serious reporting on religion and its connection to business or politics. Modern technologies usually do not convey facts within context, or as Carr complains of the effects: “I cannot read War and Peace anymore.”
The human context is all important and yet it is already damaged: “man is weakened by an intense influence, which wounds his capacity to enter into communion with the other. By nature, he is open to sharing freely, but he finds in his being a strange force of gravity that makes him turn in and affirm himself above and against others: this is egoism, the result of original sin.” (Benedict) It doesn’t have to be this way, but if we are not careful the Internet will only aggravate this age-old situation.