December 16, 2010

The digital continent: a theological perspective

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
The Internet, email, Twitter, Facebook, mobile phones and iPods are creating a major cultural phenomenon in society. And this is happening almost overnight. Black and white television broadcasting began in the United States on July 1, 1941. It took 10 years for 4 million TV sets to be sold and 13 years for television to reach 50 million users. After the iPod was introduced, it took only nine months for 1 billion applications to be downloaded.

There are many advantages to the digital continent on which we now live. We can learn the news, seek information and do research at the touch of our fingers. Businesses and universities can conduct their work interactively. And, we can stay in touch with family and friends instantly even at great distances.

Yet, there are disadvantages as well. Information is not edited. Anyone can post anything on the internet. Opinions can appear as truth. False information can masquerade as fact.  And, personal identities can be hidden. Furthermore, the Internet can be co-opted for prurient interests. Every second, 28,258 Internet users view pornography. In 47% percent of families, this has become a problem. Nine out of ten children between the ages of eight and sixteen are unwillingly exposed to pornography on the Internet. One in five U.S. teenagers who regularly log on to the Internet encounters unwanted sexual solicitation.  Predators employ the Internet to contact the young, to engage them in sexually explicit conversations and sometimes to set up meetings to abuse them.

With all its advantages and misuses, the new means of communication are now radically altering the very way we relate to each other socially. Without face to face conversation, we can distance ourselves from the immediate impact of our words on the other. We can hurt another and be detached at the same time. The other is affected and we remain immune from their feelings. This is a true loss in the quality of interpersonal relationships.

The thrill of virtual connectedness with so many individuals at great ease disguises the challenges inherent in forming good relationships. It creates a false sense of connectedness. In fact, an immersion in social networking through digital communication takes away from interacting with those close at hand.

Text-messaging someone at a distance removes the individual from actual quality face time with family, classmates or coworkers right before them. The young person using an iPod during dinner may be very well in tune with his or her favorite pop singer and, at the same time, be totally out of touch with the family at the table. If this practice of communicating with those at a distance and ignoring those close at hand becomes a habit, the individual effectively can withdraw from the real world.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that the thrill that lifts up so many who experience connectedness on the digital continent is actually rooted in the fundamental structure of the human person. We are made to communicate with each other.  As Pope Benedict XVI has said, “When we find ourselves drawn towards other people, when we want to know more about them and make ourselves known to them, we are responding to God’s call -- a call that is imprinted in our nature as beings created in the image and likeness of God, the God of communication and communion” (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for 2009 World Day of Communication).  

We have been created in the image and likeness of God. And, God is communio. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons, equal, distinct, in eternal relatedness to each other. To make best use of the new technology, our communication itself should mirror God in whose image we have been made.

Thus, every communication should be marked by at least three basic qualities. First, there must be a generous giving of self to the other. Just as the Father does not hold back all he is, but gives all that he is to the Son, we should be open and generous to the other, not using the other for our own self-gratification. Second, just as the Son is the Word uttered by the Father and is, therefore, Truth itself, all our words need to be truthful. We should not spread misinformation or disseminate falsehood. Third, just as the Holy Spirit is the bond of unity between the Father and the Son, our communication with the other should draw us closer together. It should never isolate us from others. Rather, it should connect us in mutual care and concern for each other.

When our use of the new means of social networking is self-giving, truthful and loving, it then becomes “ a reflection of our participation in the communicative and unifying Love of God, who desires to make of all humanity one family” (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for 2009 World Day of Communication). And, then our migration to the digital continent moves us closer to our true home in heaven.

Reprinted with permission of The Beacon, newspaper of the Paterson Diocese.
Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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