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Pope Francis called the Internet a ‘gift from God’ today for its power to bring people together and inspire solidarity. However, he also said that humanity hasn’t made the best use of this gift, and we remain divided.
The Pontiff has been known for his forward-thinking, breaking of “rules,” and commitment of tolerance and acceptance. He has also been an unusually tech-savvy Pope, meaning he uses Twitter and is willing to do things like pardon people for watching a plenary indulgence celebration online.
“Today we are living in a world which is growing ever ‘smaller’ and where, as a result, it would seem to be easier for all of us to be neighbours,” Pope Francis said in a World Communications Day letter. “Developments in travel and communications technology are bringing us closer together and making us more connected, even as globalization makes us increasingly interdependent. Nonetheless, divisions, which are sometimes quite deep, continue to exist within our human family.”
Technology has made significant strides towards solving some of the world’s greatest problems, but there is still a “scandalous gap between the opulence of the wealthy and the utter destitution of the poor,” as well as widespread exclusion, marginalization, poverty, and ideological conflicts, he said.
Media and communication technology can play a huge role is overcoming differences and creating a sense of “unity of the human family” — but only if people are prepared to listen and learn from each other, he said.
“The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression,” the Pope 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 neighbours, from those closest to us.”
The paradox of the Internet is that it simultaneously brings people together across oceans and creates distance between us and those next door.
A number of studies have shown that many of us haven’t met with our Facebook friends in months and that excessive use of the social network can trigger a decline in happiness and can increase anxiety, envy, misery, insecurity, and loneliness.
Furthermore, the issue of selective reading that Pope Francis mentioned is an important one, because exposure to a range of contrasting opinions is important for keeping an open mind and stimulating intelligent dialogue and debate.
For the Internet to really be a gift from God, we need to cultivate “an authentic culture of encounter,” Francis said. This requires us to be more deliberate and calm, better listeners, more patient, and practice acceptance, he said.
And just as the Internet creates tremendous potential for good, it can also be used to disseminate misinformation, distractions, and hatred. Pope Francis reminds us that the power of communication is a responsibility and requires more than just sending words off into cyberspace.
“Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road,” the Pope said. “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.”
In a nutshell, less Facebook and BuzzFeed, more genuine conversation.