The Church and the Internet (2000)

(This is an article I wrote in the year 2000, after attending the 3rd Internet and Society Conference at Harvard. Think of it as a time capsule. I was Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston at the time, so it has a Catholic focus. Still, it raised some interesting questions–and some things have turned out very differently.)

How is the Internet changing our world?

What does the future hold?

These were the questions discussed at the the 3rd biennial conference on the Internet and Society at Harvard University, 31 May – 2 June 2000.  I attended as chair of our diocesan Evangelization Commission, though the issues are most profoundly affecting the two areas that I spent most of my time with: young adults and higher education.  I was interested in learning about both the societal issues which the Church may need to address, and how we might make better use of technology in our witness to the gospel.

Limits of technology—and possibilities

I was most surprised by the fact that the leading developers of today’s technology were the loudest voices calling for us to recognize its limitations.  Mitch Kapor (founder of Lotus) set the tone for much of the conference in a presentation in which he referred to himself as a “recovering techno-utopian.”   Though the Internet is a powerful communications medium, and though it has expanded in less than ten years from a strictly text-based medium to “virtual reality,” it is still highly restricted in “emotional bandwidth.”  Body language, emotion, and nuance are stripped from communication, giving us content, but depriving us of character and intent.  It is very easy, therefore, for e-mail and BB conversations to get out of hand—leading to the “flame-wars” that are a common on-line occurrence.   At best, Kapor said, Internet communication will leverage and expand insights and arguments that come from face-to-face interaction, but important discussions will always take place in person.

Another way to make this point is to say that genuine human interaction is always embodied.  And is this not the point of Catholic liturgy and sacramentals—and one of the main differences between Catholic and Protestant practice?  We see sign and symbol as not only permitted, but as essential to human discourse.  The extreme branches of the Reformation wanted to reduce worship to the Word; some smashed statutes and organs as a consequence.  But worship is not just preaching of a sermon, to convey to us unchangeable propositions.  It is, rather, a medley of sight, sound, smell, and movement.   All that we are is brought before God, as gifts we have received, and as gifts to be offered in His praise.  This was true of Jewish worship, but it has become even more important for Christians in the light of the Incarnation.  God not only created material things, and called them “good,” but has assumed our human flesh and blood in Jesus Christ.  Technology will never replace the essential, simple, bodily acts of Christian worship: washing with water, anointing with oil, and breaking Bread.

But our concern for the goodness of creation, and the importance of the human person extends beyond worship.  The dignity of the human person is the foundation of Catholic teaching on social ethics.  It is a dignity which derives from our creation in the image of God, not on our usefulness to society, and is thus inalienable.  Looking at the role of science and technology in human life from this perspective, we can affirm that they are good and useful, but must always be servants of human good, not the masters of our destiny.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says,

2293. … Science and technology are precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his integral development for the benefit of all. By themselves however they cannot disclose the meaning of existence and of human progress. Science and technology are ordered to man, from whom they take their origin and development; hence they find in the person and in his moral values both evidence of their purpose and awareness of their limits.

2294. … Science and technology … must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good, in conformity with the plan and the will of God.

Pope John Paul II elaborated on this point in discussing issues of development in Asia.

33. Human beings, not wealth or technology, are the prime agents and destination of development. Therefore, the kind of development that the Church promotes reaches far beyond questions of economy and technology. It begins and ends with the integrity of the human person created in the image of God and endowed with a God-given dignity and inalienable human rights. The various international declarations on human rights and the many initiatives which these have inspired are a sign of growing attention on a worldwide level to the dignity of the human person. Unfortunately, these declarations are often violated in practice. Fifty years after the solemn proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many people are still subjected to the most degrading forms of exploitation and manipulation, which make them veritable slaves to those who are more powerful, to an ideology, economic power, oppressive political systems, scientific technocracy or the intrusiveness of the mass media. (John Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia)

Yet John Paul II has also affirmed that we need to make full use of communications technologies (and the Vatican’s website is a leader in Catholic Internet presence).  In his 1999 post-synodal exhortation Ecclesia in America, he said that “knowledge and use of the media,  whether the more traditional forms or those which technology has produced in recent times, is indispensable. Contemporary reality demands a capacity to learn the language, nature and characteristics of mass media.”  And because “the media also help to shape the culture and mentality of people today, … there must be special pastoral activity aimed at those working in the media.”

New pastoral issues

Besides the use of the Internet as a communication tool, we also need to be aware of new pastoral challenges which are raised.  The Catechism notes that

2496. The means of social communication (especially the mass media) can give rise to a certain passivity among users, making them less than vigilant consumers of what is said or shown. Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media. They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences.

This was written just around the time we began to hear about “Internet addiction” and  “cybersex.” Obviously the Internet did not create pornography or give birth to addictions, but the ease of access has brought these from the “adult” book store to the living room.  The Harvard Conference acknowledged these issues, but did not address them as I had hoped.  It was said that the popularity of cyberporn is one of the main reasons for the “gender divide” between male and female users. It has also been acknowledged in other forums that pornography has driven the growth of technology, seeking ever greater bandwidth and multimedia quality.  But as Professor Anthony Oettinger noted in a panel discussion, that has been the case since the days of antiquity.

Other social justice issues were discussed at length.  There was much talk about the “digital divide” between those with access and those without. I wonder if this is not so much an economic divide as it is a generational divide—as the numbers on use of Internet among different age brackets tends to suggest.

Age Range 18-29 30-49 50-64  65+
of Internet Use
66% 58% 41% 13%

Other issues relate to privacy and to criminal justice.  Should information on convicted criminals be posted on websites by the government after they have served their time? Or does this extend a sentence from a matter of years in prison to a lifetime of suspicion and surveillance?

And consider the potential impact on society from the next great technological leap, which Jerry Greenburg of Sapient suggests will be to tie wireless broadband Internet access to GPS.  Integrating this technology with information that companies have obtained from you about purchasing habits, pricing of basic commodities could become as variable as airline fares. Will poor neighborhoods suddenly find themselves abandoned by distributors who will go where the most money can be earned?  Will government regulation keep pace?

Educational concerns

Though some techno-utopians imagine that on-line education may replace “brick and mortar” colleges, I think most of the speakers were agreed that the educational use of the new technology also has important limitations—and these are related to the humanistic concerns I first raised. This was most effectively addressed by President Rudenstine of Harvard. A thousand courses at Harvard have a course webpage. The most effective uses, he said, include web-based class discussion groups and e-mail questioning of professor. He finds it hard to imagine how teaching could be done fully on line. Research requires libraries with manuscripts and rare books. And education itself has communal values. College education takes place in a learning community in which students must come to grips with diversity and with other perspectives. Human discussion, debate, development, and personal relationships can’t be replaced by the Internet.

Yet the Internet can expand the classroom in a way never before possible. Primary educator Kristi Rennebohm Franz shared her use of Internet as a way to connect the realities of her students with the realities of students around the world. It’s a methodology based on that of Paolo Freire (cf., The Pedagogy of the Oppressed).  Students are linked with hospital patients at a Ronald McDonald House, with children in Nicaragua through a Peace Corps partnership, with children in South Africa via a project about Martin Luther King, Jr.  Exposure to the realities of others enables them to reflect critically on their own reality, and then to consider possible responses.

Website evaluation

I spent some time reflecting on the website of my employer, and the section of it for my department.  There are a number of critical questions we need to ask (assuming we have agreed that appropriation of web technology is an essential tool for evangelization).  It is not enough to have a webpage; there are lots of bad ones, and there are some which, though interesting on first glance, are not worth a second visit.  A new buzz-word is “stickiness”: What will keep visitors on our site, and bring them back?  Content must be kept up-to-date, and must be unique.   Is navigation easy and clear? Is the site static, or interactive?  Some of the most popular sites provide visitors the opportunity to have input; to be, as it were, “co-creators.” Dare we develop on-line “virtual” communities for faith sharing and witness?

Technology and change

Finally, some thoughts on change.  Helping people (and institutions) cope with change will be one of the greatest pastoral needs in the years to come.  But this is nothing new.  As John Henry Newman said, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below, to live is to change”). Harvard President Rudenstine noted that change in technology has always been accompanied by fears and adjustment. Early railroad passengers found themselves susceptible to motion sickness and dizziness as they tried to watch passing scenery in the same way they had while traveling in a carriage — they had to learn to shift their gaze from the trackbed to a point further out.  Even the development of public libraries bred fears that excessive solitary reading would damage health, digestion, and socialization.

But the reality of change cannot simply be dismissed.  As technology changes, society must be able to adapt, or face consequences.  We’re all familiar with the old IBM stereotype of businessman in navy blue suit and white shirt.  In their corporate culture, Research and Development was  carried out by a few people in an isolated department.  There was a clear hierarchy.  To those who benefited from such a corporate culture, a photo of the MicroSoft team in 1978 would hardly have seemed threatening.  This was a diverse group of young men and women with casual clothes and long hair.   But contrasting graphs of profits, gross revenue, number of employees, and revenue per employee demonstrate at a glance how quickly MS left IBM in dust. These points were made in a presentation by Ben Levitan of Viant, who showed how workplace culture must be structured to be able to adapt quickly to change.  At Viant, corporate structure is decentralized and non-hierarchical.  Technologies are embraced which facilitate rapid communication (Internet, wireless, video conferencing).  Corporate culture values trust, empowerment, respect, on-going learning and the ability to forge close relationships quickly with customers. Offices are located to permit easy access and to restrict over-development. They are in urban locations, close to street level, to keep close to the real world. Each office is located entirely on one floor, with no more than 125 or so people in one city. It is a tribal environment, in which all live and work together, and ideas can come from anywhere, anytime.  But IBM was a stable culture for generations, with promise of longevity with the company; today’s “dot.coms” are characterized by instability and promises to employees of “stock options” — just in case the company makes it big.

It’s not only corporate culture that is changing as a result of technological advance.  Personal identity is also affected.  Pippa Norris of JFK School of Government noted that the invention of radio helped to develop a sense of American national identity (in contrast to earlier regionalisms). The Internet will give a sense of global identity. And yet it will also retard assimilation of new immigrant populations.  She gave herself as an example; an immigrant from England, if she had come 20 years ago she would have been more fully assimilated and more quickly (reading the New York Times, watching ABC, eating American food). Today, she is able to watch BBC, read the London Times, and eat readily available British foods.

Andy Grove of Intel relishes the prospect of change.  Instead of fearing it, he said, “Embrace that which confounds you most.” Never has so much info been available to so many for so little. Barriers to access are minimal — the Internet is a self-teaching medium, and access to it eliminates age, ethnic, economic, geographical barriers. But access alone is meaningless…education and culture have become new barriers. The challenge is the need to participate and encourage participation. Many people find change threatening. And there are indeed many kinds of threats associated with the new technology (viruses, the Y2K scare, etc.).  But he noted that most of the 20th century was lived under the shadow of nuclear threat.  He’s optimistic that ethics and dialogue will prevail.

We, too, have reason to be optimistic.  Not because threats are slight or because technology is powerful, but because we are in the hands of a God who is more powerful than our abilities to destroy ourselves.  To him must we turn our eyes, looking beyond our fears and beyond the fascination and threat of the world.

1723. “The beatitude we are promised confronts us with decisive moral choices. It invites us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the love of God above all else. It teaches us that true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement— however beneficial it may be—such as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love.”