When we think about the changes in communication, what some commentators call the ‘digital revolution’, it is natural to focus on the technological developments. We are fascinated by the speed with which communication devices are becoming more powerful, smaller, more connected and accessible. While this focus is understandable, the truth is that the most profound change is not technological but cultural: the real challenge is to appreciate how much is changing in the ways that people, especially young people, are gathering information, are being educated, are expressing themselves, are forming relationships and communities. In this reflection, I would like to invite people to think about how we can ensure that the new emerging culture of communications can be a power for good in our world.
I believe we should begin by recognizing and celebrating the potential of these technologies to facilitate human communication, to allow for the sharing of words and images almost simultaneously across enormous distances and with people who might previously have been isolated. This in turn allows people to use the technologies to promote greater understanding and harmony among people, 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 (Pope Francis, 2014). In 2009, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described these technologies as being ‘truly a gift to humanity’ and earlier this year, Pope Francis said that the potential of the internet to foster a culture of sharing and encounter allows us to conclude that it is something truly good, a gift from God.
The technologies, however, will not automatically lead to a change for the better: there is a need for a determined commitment from individuals and institutions if this is to happen.
It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters. 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.
—Pope Francis, 2014
Commentators frequently speak of user generated content with reference to social networks, but we must remember also that the very culture of social networks is user generated. If the networks are to be spaces where good positive communications can help to promote individual and social well-being then the users, the people who make up the networks, need to be attentive to the type of content they are creating, promoting and sharing. All of us are aware of cases where social media have been abused, where people have been attacked, ridiculed and had their privacy violated. There is a role for Governments and International Organizations to play in regulating this environment but there is an equally important moral or ethical obligation on all of us as individual agents to ensure that these environments are safe and humanly enriching.
All users will avoid the sharing of words and images that are degrading of human beings, that promote hatred and intolerance, that debase the goodness and intimacy of human sexuality or that exploit the weak and vulnerable.
—Pope Benedict XVI, 2009
Communication will only be fruitful when we avoid aggressive forms of expression. People will only express themselves fully when they are confident that their views are welcomed and not merely tolerated. As a community we can only grow in knowledge and insight if our contributions are offered with honesty and authenticity. A sense of personal responsibility is especially required of those who engage anonymously in discussions and debates. Although social media often offer greater visibility to those who are most provocative or strident in their style of presentation, true understanding is best nourished by reasoned debate, logical argumentation and gentle persuasion. The more we grow in appreciation of that mutual understanding and solidarity that is achieved in authentic communication, the more we will desire that it is truly inclusive and that our conversations are accessible to all. This inclusiveness requires that we are attentive to ensure that the developing nations are not excluded from those digital networks which are promoting development and educational opportunity; in the developed world, we must also be careful that the increased digitalization of Governmental services does not serve to deny access to the elderly, the poor and the marginalized.
If the digital networks are to achieve their potential in promoting human solidarity then we must recover the art of dialogue. When we listen to the ‘other ‘ and allow his or her voice to breach our defensiveness, we open ourselves to growth in understanding. If we are willing to listen to others, we will learn to see our world with different eyes and we will grow in appreciation of the richness of the human experience as revealed in other cultures and traditions. The more we grow in knowledge of another, the more we grow also in self-knowledge. Our engagement with others will alert us to those basic desires to love and be loved, for protection and security, for meaning and purpose that are shared by all humans. Attentiveness to our human condition, and to the one world which we all share, alert us to the truth that ultimately these desires can only be satisfied if we construct a society that is committed to a shared concern for the well-being of all rather than to an ethos of unbridled competition where the happiness of some can only be achieved at the expense of others. Many of the greatest threats to our future from climate change to food insecurity, and from war to criminality, can only be addressed by dialogue and agreed forms of action.
It is self-evident that at the heart of any serious reflection on the nature and purpose of human communications there must be an engagement with questions of truth. A communicator can attempt to inform, to educate, to entertain, to convince, to comfort; but the final worth of any communication lies in its truthfulness. Dialogue is at its most fruitful where it is rooted in a commitment to search together for truth. If there is no such thing as truth, as right or wrong answers, then dialogue becomes meaningless. It is a shared commitment to searching for truth which gives human dialogue and debate their ultimate value; otherwise, they become exercises in coercion and manipulation in which each seeks to assert his or her own view without any reference to the claims of truth.
I would like to conclude this reflection with some words more explicitly related to my Christian faith. I hope that they will inspire those who share this faith, but I also hope that they may be of inspiration to those with a different belief, as well as to those who do not feel part of a religion at all.
I am convinced that believers must be present in the social networks and that we should work with all people of good will to construct a forum which will promote goodness and cooperation. Believers, I would argue, have a particular obligation to seek to contribute to the construction of a culture of encounter. It is at the core of God’s self-communication that we are made in his likeness and image. We believe that all human beings, whether they realize it or not, are created as sons and daughters of the one God and that a yearning for connection, friendship and community is imprinted in our hearts. Human society and solidarity are not the products of blind evolutionary forces nor do they represent some form of historical construct to facilitate minimal human cohabitation, rather they are part of our destiny and are necessary for individual well-being and for the flourishing of the human race.
At the heart of our faith, is the conviction that we are loved by God, and we are blessed with the joy and hope that comes with this realization. When we recognise God as the one who has reached out to us, who loves us in our brokenness and who wishes to embrace all people; we discover our mission to be servants of communion and the culture of encounter. Our faith cannot be a refuge, a place of comfort, which somehow exempts us from the struggles of those who share our world and our journey. We are called to engage with great tenderness all those we meet along the way. We must learn to be attentive to their suffering and pain, and to listen to what they have to say about their hopes and concerns, their fears and aspirations.
The revolution taking place in communications media and in information technologies represents a great and thrilling challenge; may we respond to that challenge with fresh energy and imagination as we seek to share with others the beauty of God.
—Pope Francis, 2014
by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.