Who is My Digital Neighbor?

Last week, Pope Francis released his message for the 48th World Communications Day, “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter.” Since 1967, most of these messages (and every one since 1996) have been dated for release on January 24th, the feast day of Saint Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists. They are released several months ahead of the actual day of celebration of World Communication Day,  typically in May or June, with instructions that: “each year in every diocese of the world, by the determination of the Bishops, there should be celebrated a day on which the faithful are instructed in their responsibilities” with respect to media (Inter Mirifica 18).

Although these messages are often overlooked, I think the internet popularity of Pope Francis makes it more likely that this message will be read. Here, I’d like to offer some comments on key passages in it that I think are important, with respect both to Francis’ pontificate and to Catholic teaching on social communications.

“In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all. Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity.”

The language of unity and solidarity runs throughout the message. One of the great theological questions about the internet is how can it promote solidarity. By now, the fear of becoming an isolated individual is almost a cliché about internet usage; less frequently noted is how our engagement through media can create digital enclaves that mimic the gated community mentality we often see “in real life.” The message’s theme of a “culture of encounter” depends on a willingness to encounter “others” who might challenge our basic assumptions, experiences, and narratives. Thus, a “culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive” (2), especially from those outside our comfort zone.

“The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.”

In a tonally problematic piece for Time, Samantha Grossman (sarcastically?) sees Francis as contradicting the famous Al-Gore-created-the-internet thing, and eventually writes “True that, but like, now we can totally justify our Internet addictions. This is how God intended us to be.” This oh so clever zinger helps to reveal a point made very effectively by Jana Bennett in her Aquinas on the Web? Doing Theology in an Internet Age: the internet is part of creation by virtue of being part of human life. She investigates the internet as a “power” in the biblical sense of “powers and principalities,” arguing that we ought to see the internet not only as a created good, but as fallen, and thus capable of influencing our discipleship both positively and negatively. The possibilities of the internet are tremendous, and we ought to use our gifts positively; nonetheless, we sin through abuse of our gifts, and the internet is not exempt.

“We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind.”

One of the greatest challenges to internet-mediated solidarity is the so-called “digital divide,” which describes the differences in access (and quality of access) to the internet due to socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, geography, education, disability, and so on. It might seem hard to believe for many residents of the US (especially those of us who have come of age with such technology), but many around the world (and closer to home) do not have the same access we do. Lack of access has demonstrable effects on economic and civic participation in a wider culture, particularly in “developed” and “developing” nations.

“What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding? We need, for example, to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen. We need also to be patient if we want to understand those who are different from us. People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted. If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.”

This is a key passage, because it notes how participation in internet culture trains our participation in discourse. We become accustomed to responding immediately, which can both discourage deliberation/reflection and encourage sniping and snark. The vision of genuine “encounter” here is not brief or instantaneous, but ongoing, intentional, and patient. Our engagement with one another is meant to take the time to grow in charity, not to fire off quick, clever, or defensive responses.

“This question can help us to see communication in terms of “neighbourliness”. We might paraphrase the question in this way: How can we be ‘neighborly’ in our use of the communications media and in the new environment created by digital technology? I find an answer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is also a parable about communication. Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God.”

By drawing on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Francis asks us to rephrase the scribe’s question to be “who is my digital neighbor?” Communio et Progressio defines communication as “the giving of self in love.” Communication in service of encounter means to give of ourselves in love and to receive the other in love. This is why Francis says that “communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement” : in the midst of an internet-mediated culture, we are dealing with fundamentally human questions, concerns, and hopes.

“To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.”

David Tracy describes this view of conversation in terms of the risk of conversion – we must be open to the possibility that the other will disclose genuinely new possibilities to us (see Dialogue with the Other). We are not meant to lose ourselves entirely in this process, but to come to a more full realization of the self and of the other. When communication is seen in the broader context of giving and receiving in love (rather than simply giving and receiving information), we recognize the possibility of fruitful dialogue that can encourage solidarity, foster charity, and build toward unity. But for any of this to be possible, we must be open to living and operating within this “authentic culture of encounter.”

Stephen Okey is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion at Saint Leo University. This article is also featured at Daily Theology.