Theologian Vincent Miller has written a number of interesting articles and books about globalization and commodification in our contemporary world, touching often upon the role technology plays in them. He wrote in America last year that our relationship with products over and above those who produce them “is obvious in any walk through a grocery or department store.”
“No sales clerk describes their desirability, the goods speak for themselves, calling out to us from the shelves to buy them and take them home,” he said.. “They say little, however, of how they were produced: bright sweaters tell us nothing of the well-lit garment factories or dark sweatshops where they were produced; the glistening steaks in the meat counter are silent about the open plains or cramped feedlots where the cattle from which they were butchered lived; our electronics are mum about whether the tantalum in their capacitors was mined in Australia or in a way that perpetuated violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
It’s an interesting and complex thought when read in light of Pope Francis’ comments on “the globalization of indifference” and the interconnection of the world made possible by the Internet. The rapidity with which our world is changing as a result of such progress continues to astound, if not bewilder.
An example: even in the short span between my extended stays in Italy (2001 and today), technology has radically changed the experience. Unbelievable as it may sound, when I studied here as an undergraduate, I had neither a cell phone nor a lap-top, and would have to find internet cafés to write friends and family periodically, as well as my academic papers.
Now just a few short years later, I FaceTime video-chat with my cousins while walking past the Colosseum or exchange WhatsApp messages in a group with friends currently in six different time zones (like the former British Empire, the sun never sets on our conversation!). My teaching presentations are saved on the cloud so I don’t have to carry a briefcase to class and I’ve had regular Skype meetings with professors in other continents.
The pope this week hosted a Google Hangout with special-needs children through a program called Scholas Occurrentes, an initiative to provide education and enrichment through technology. He laughingly said, “I am old-fashioned when it comes to computers. I’m a dinosaur. I don’t know how to work a computer.” He does have over 5 million Twitter followers though.
The pope has commented on both the advantages of technology and the potential dangers associated with it.
“The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgment, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression,” he said. “The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests. The world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings. The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors, from those closest to us. We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind.”
When used properly, technology and modern means of communication, including social media, foster a genuine culture of encounter, which helps us “to grow in humanity and mutual understanding.”
Those who communicate well and easily with others realize the authentic relationships we can build with them, and so become “neighborly” (cf. Lk 10) even to those far away. This interaction should never be focused on consumption or manipulation.
“It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply ‘connected’; connections need to grow into true encounters,” the pope said. “We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness. Media strategies do not ensure beauty, goodness and truth in communication. The world of media also has to be concerned with humanity, it too is called to show tenderness. The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people.”
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.