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The Digital World in Fratelli Tutti. A Change of Perspective

Msgr. Dario E. Viganò

Vice-Chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, Holy See

The Church and the media. Under the sign of a double pedagogy

If we take into consideration all the interventions of the Magisterium of the Church on communication, we could notice that they have been characterized in history by what we can define as the policy of double pedagogy: an attitude of audacious encouragement, which was in parallel followed by a prudent and decisive reminder for pastoral purposes connected to a severe warning for the improper use of such instruments.

Let me offer you just a few examples. Despite not having left any magisterial documents on the media, Leo XIII inaugurated the perspective of a double pedagogy towards the mass media with powerfully symbolic actions and gestures. The first one, in 1883, with the inclusion of photography (whose invention dates back to 1839) among the figurative arts placed at the service of faith. Subsequently, in 1898, the Pope furthermore granted permission to be portrayed in a film by William K.L. Dickson, film innovator of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Alongside this attitude of evident openness came a severe warning: almost immediately, the Holy See withdrew the rights to exploit the films from the Biograph Company because it did not agree with their method of disseminating the images of the Pope, carried out according to commercial logic and – often – in places considered immoral.

Then, in 1909 Pius X with a decree signed by the Cardinal Vicar of Rome Pietro Gasparri, ordered the prohibition for all Roman clergy, both regular and secular, to attend any projection that took place in the «cinemas of Rome, without any exception». On the other hand, alongside these provisions, there was no lack of opposite actions that signaled the clear desire to encourage the use of the cinema for educational, catechetical, and pastoral purposes.

Pius XI, with Vigilanti cura of 1936, the first (and so far, the only) Encyclical letter that a pope has dedicated entirely to the cinema, solemnly confirmed the double pedagogy of the Church. In fact, while he did not fail to underline the moral dangers of the cinema, at the same time, he recognized and supported its educational and cultural contribution. Thus, the cinema represents «a point of mediation and balance with respect to the two prevailing positions already existent within the Catholic world towards cinema: the one concerned with the morality of films, and the one more interested in a possible positive educational function».

Pius XII continued along this line, bringing in substantial innovations. It is no coincidence that almost at the end of his pontificate, he dedicated one of his last encyclicals, Miranda prorsus (September 8th, 1957), to «cinema, radio, and television», as a compendium of his vast previous teachings and praxis of courageous pastoral care of audiovisual techniques.

The advent of Pope Roncalli to the throne of Peter certainly marked a turning point in the complex dialectical confrontation of the Church with the mass media. However, it is to be noted that, on closer inspection, the overall scheme of the double approach to the media did not undergo profound subversions from a magisterial point of view.

With Pope Montini, the Church continued its journey of development and discernment towards the media, which in those years was becoming increasingly complex. We do not find in Paul VI substantial changes in the general approach, but certainly an expansion of the doctrinal basis and the theological reflection around the general theme of the mass media, still considered in their double value as tools with enormous potential, capable of generating so much the good as the bad.

With John Paul II, the first pontiff of the globalization era, the media assumed a centrality never achieved before in a pontificate. Overall, with Pope Wojtyla, the Church’s double track strategy towards the media was called to redefine itself along the coordinates of scenarios shaken by continuous changes, due to the “rapid development” generated by the challenges of globalization.

Pope Ratzinger undoubtedly introduced some new elements in the Church’s discourse towards the media: he was able to re-read the media’s overall question by inserting it within the framework of the refined theological analysis of the contemporary cultural reality proposed throughout his magisterium.[1]

Francis. A new approach

Pope Francis’ magisterium is part of this path briefly defined so far as “the double pedagogy”. However, his magisterium determines a change of course. In fact, in the encyclical letter Laudato si’ (May 24th, 2015) he recalls how «We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build».[2]  

The epistemological approach to the world of the media changes by the reflection of the Church. Indeed, if Pope Francis affirms that «the Net is a resource of our time. It is a source of knowledge and relationships that were once unthinkable», he is not silent on the fact that «in terms of the profound transformations technology has brought to bear on the process of production, distribution and use of content, many experts also highlight the risks that threaten the search for, and sharing of, authentic information on a global scale».[3] And more radically, the Pope is aware of the fact that «mere training in the correct use of new technologies will not prove sufficient. As instruments or tools, these are not “neutral”, for […] they shape the world and engage consciences on the level of values».[4]

Here is the new perspective: Pope Francis makes explicit an epistemological awareness, perhaps latent in previous decades. Namely, that the media are not neutral and the judgment on them does not depend exclusively on the use made of them. Rather, their very presence within the scene of social relations modifies and affects attitudes, behaviors and visions, reaching the possibility of directing choices in a heterodirect manner.

In particular, starting from the Encyclical Fratelli tutti (October 3rd, 2020), a strong awareness emerges of how the digital media system has profoundly changed not only the production processes – for example with the figure of prosumers – but has also imposed a new model market in which man, from creator and builder of goods and services to which he can have access for an ever-lower cost, has now become a commodity and no longer a customer. Now, the customers are the big corporations that buy our data under the pretense of improving and personalizing their services (customer service). In other words, customers are today not only a commodity (merce), but are also at the mercy (mercé) of economic-political lobbies.

Digital communication in Fratelli tutti

Pope Francis’ latest encyclical letter, which is more prudent and decidedly more attentive to the risks of communication and digital culture, shows in the first chapter that we could define ‘diagnostic’, the intention to direct our attention to «certain trends in our world that hinder the development of universal fraternity».[5] In a diagnosis that wants to be exemplifying and not exhaustive, the Pontiff identifies three separate obstacles in the current cultural context. First of all, the crumbling of personal spaces of intimacy and respect; then, the pathological obsession with social media; and lastly, the link between financial powers and the Internet.

a) Too close and too far away

Concerning the crumbling of spaces of intimacy and respect, the reference is the paragraph entitled The illusion of communication: «Oddly enough, while closed and intolerant attitudes towards others are on the rise, distances are otherwise shrinking or disappearing to the point that the right to privacy scarcely exists. Everything has become a kind of spectacle to be examined and inspected, and people’s lives are now under constant surveillance. Digital communication wants to bring everything out into the open; people’s lives are combed over, laid bare and bandied about, often anonymously. Respect for others disintegrates, and even as we dismiss, ignore or keep others distant, we can shamelessly peer into every detail of their lives».[6]

The question of distances, which the Pontiff states in respect to the violation of the intimate one, calls into question a discipline: proxemics. The reference author is Edward T. Hall and his book The hidden dimension.[7] In the volume, the author studies the different ways of using spaces and the meanings that these ways reveal. «And the meaning – writes Umberto Eco in the preface to the book – changes with the change of distance; and distances acquire different values in different cultural models».

“Hall – Eco continues – not only wants us to know better the reality that surrounds us but expects that from this knowledge, various operational, interpersonal, community, and political decisions will be generated”. Moreover, he continues: «Proxemics could thus be understood as a technique of reading spatiality as a communication channel [...] If – due to the way it is organized – space communicates contents and therefore presupposes ideologies, proxemics should appear not as a new ideology of space, but as the demystifying technique of the ideologies of space, and the grammar capable of allowing other articulations, other messages».

We live in a paradoxical situation: while the pervasive diffusion of digital communication cancels distances, the political and media narrative, in this pandemic context, has continued to speak of social distance. We can say that we live in the pathological situation of being at the same time too close and too far away. We must pay close attention to the meaning and adjective of distances because a secure sociality is not a social distance, but a physical distance.

Of course, «proxemics will not save the world», and on its own it will not be able to determine urban revolutions and social reclamation», explains Eco in his introduction to Hall’s work, whose hope was to «increase the awareness of our personal identity, to make our experiences more intense, and to reduce alienating phenomena: in short, to help mankind get to know itself a little better – and to restore it to itself».[8]

In addition to the contingent pandemic situation, indeed, the logic of social networks affects the perception of personal, social, and intimate distances that govern our behavior and thus is leading to the «confusion between who we really are and what we should reveal about life and personal opinions, in the same way in which the growing pressure to “be ourselves” appears more and more conflicting towards social conformity».[9]

It is necessary not to relinquish the responsibility and fatigue of personal relationships in presence because «the body in the situation speaks as much as the intellect: space is the place of this discourse and structure its grammar, while the distance impacts communication and mutual understanding. Proximity is the place of communication of tacit, intersubjective and non-coded knowledge and acquaintanceship. Being together and in close contact can produce clan effects and solidarity, also generate innovation».[10] For instance, think about corporate or university campuses that promote team building as a relational performance that facilitates creativity and learning.

We must not forget that «sociality is also a bodily exchange – smells, physical contacts, tastes – which cannot be compensated for by media communication or so-called ‘at a distance’ communications».[11] Let us think, for example, of one of the problems we are experiencing in Europe and certainly in Italy: the so-called “DaD”, (‘Didattica a distanza’, or distance learning). Teaching is not only a cognitive affair, but also matter of reciprocal contact and contagion – intellectual and emotional. Through this dimension of mood exchange, from which also humor and cheerfulness derive, “social bodies” are generated: the class, the team, etc., as well as the movement, the party, the nation. This is why it is necessary to «find the right language… Contact is the true language of communication, the same affective language that transmitted healing to the leper. How many healings we can perform and transmit by learning this language of contact!».[12]

b) Obsessed with social media[13]

The reference to the pathological obsession with social media surfaces in the encyclical letter of Pope Francis in the following paragraph: «Digital campaigns of hatred and destruction, for their part, are not – as some would have us believe – a positive form of mutual support, but simply an association of individuals united against a perceived common enemy. “Digital media can also expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships”. They lack the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration that speak to us and are a part of human communication. Digital relationships, which do not demand the slow and gradual cultivation of friendships, stable interaction or the building of a consensus that matures over time, have the appearance of sociability. Yet they do not really build community; instead, they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity».[14]

We could say that today the social epidemic goes hand in hand with a socio-communicative epidemic. In fact, today’s mantra is that «if we want to survive we must be competitive, and to do so, we need to be connected, continuously receive and process an immense and growing amount of data. This causes constant attention-derived stress and a reduction in the time available for affectivity».[15]

Instead, it is a question of recovering an attention that is active and engaged, not simply parasitic. For example, I refer to the rhetoric of links, according to which the number of links to one’s essay confirms the importance of a paper or a publication, because many authors have deemed it worthy of mention. However, in recent years, something has been changing with the introduction of ‘Likes’. This allows a person to share with friends and users simply with a click. Thus «the transition from the link to the “like” as the prevailing hard currency on the Web symbolizes the tear in the economy of attention, from browsing based on the research of self-referentiality or enclosed sphere in social media».[16]

Instead, the Pope recalls the effort of investing in relationships, that need time and patience to mature. A reminder that sounds like an assumption of responsibility, because «the tendency towards communication in real time, movements and real events that are immediately replicated in the representative sphere of the media, will cut us off from the material time necessary for action, for chronology and for history, including the objects of concrete experience, confining us to what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls spherical time».[17]

c) The shadow of financial powers

With regard to the connections between financial powers and the Internet, Pope Francis underlines: «Nor should we forget that “there are huge economic interests operating in the digital world, capable of exercising forms of control as subtle as they are invasive, creating mechanisms for the manipulation of consciences and of the democratic process. The way many platforms work often ends up favouring encounter between persons who think alike, shielding them from debate. These closed circuits facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate».[18]

Social networks, platforms, and economic capital influence the political choices of one’s own country, but affect other countries as well. In this consideration, the change in the economic paradigm emerges precisely due to the digitization of communication and services, and the fact that today – in a “post-media” era – we are the media.[19]

I refer to surveillance capitalism[20] which extracts not only personal data but also behavioral surplus, selling it to a predictive market. We have welcomed in the plots of our social and family lives the wonders of the digital world, which sounded like promises of goods and services without limits, fast and performing, which would come to the aid of an increasingly fragmented and tiring life. As a matter of fact, digital resources, which could improve our lives and better meet our needs, also reveal themselves as a threat because they plunder our behavioral data.

Shoshana Zuboff’s work reads: «The era we are living in, characterized by an unprecedented development of technology, brings with it a serious threat to human nature: a global surveillance architecture, ubiquitous and always on the alert, that observes and directs our own behavior to serve the interests of very few – those who derive enormous wealth and boundless power from the buying and selling of our personal data and predictions about future behavior. It is “surveillance capitalism”, the scenario behind the new economic order that exploits human experience in the form of data as raw material for secret commercial practices and the movement of power that imposes its dominion over society by challenging democracy and putting our own freedom at risk».[21]

Conclusions

The paradigm shift introduced by Pope Francis, which sheds new light on the reflection on the digital world by overcoming irenic or simply instrumental visions, places the question within an anthropological evaluation and a personalistic anthropology. Think for example of artificial intelligence: it is not a question of hindering its development, rather of rooting its programming within a human anthropological vision, not a technocratic one.

Intelligence cannot be measured simply on the functionalistic paradigm. In fact, a father who plays chess with his son will most likely be able to win, but in order to increase his son’s self-esteem, he may also decide to lose. This is human intelligence.

Therefore, this reflection cannot be reduced solely to media literacy. An important aspect of literacy is, in fact, «the ability to move away from the screen. We will be able to master the tools not only when we have learned how to use them, but also once we understand when it is appropriate to put them aside».[22]

 

END NOTES

[1] Cfr. D.E. Viganò, “Il cinema: ricezione, riflessione, rifiuto”, in AA.VV., Cristiani d’Italia. Chiese, società, stato, 1861-2011, 2 Voll., A. Melloni (ed.), Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana Treccani, Roma 2011, pp. 1389-1409; D.E. Viganò, “The Roman Catholic Church, Cinema and the “Culture of Dialogue”. Italian Catholics and the Movies after the Second World War”, in D. Biltereyst, D. Treveri Gennari (eds.), Moralizing Cinema. Film, Catholicism and Power, Routledge, London 2015, pp. 35-48.
[2] Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato si’, 24 May 2015, n. 107.
[3] Francis, Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the 53rd World Communications Day, «“We are members one of another” (Eph 4,25). From social network communities to the human community», 2019.
[4] Francis, Address to Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, 28 February 2020.
[5] Francis, Encyclical Letter Fratelli tutti, 3 October 2020, n. 9.
[6] Francis, Encyclical Letter Fratelli tutti, cit., n. 42.
[7] E.T. Hall, La dimensione nascosta. Vicino e lontano: il significato delle distanze tra le persone, Bompiani, Milano 1968 (ed. or. 1966).
[8] E.T. Hall, La dimensione nascosta, cit., p. 3.
[9] G. Lovink, Ossessioni collettive. Critica dei social media, Università Bocconi, Milano 2016, p. 58 (ed. or. 2011).
[10] I. Pezzini, Il Domani, 6 ottobre 2020.
[11] Ibidem.
[12] Francesco, Omelia, 15 febbraio 2015.
[13] Cfr. D.E. Viganò, Testimoni e influencer. Chiesa e autorità al tempo dei social, Edizioni Dehoniane Bologna, Bologna 2020.
[14] Francis, Encyclical Letter Fratelli tutti, cit., n. 43.
[15] F. Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody. Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation, Minor Compositions, London 2009, p. 44.
[16] G. Lovink, Ossessioni collettive, cit., p. 23.
[17] Ivi, p. 45.
[18] Francis, Encyclical Letter Fratelli tutti, cit., n. 45.
[19] Cfr. R. Eugeni, La condizione postmediale. Media, linguaggi e narrazioni, La Scuola – Morcelliana, Brescia 2015.
[20] S. Zuboff, Il capitalismo della sorveglianza. Il futuro dell'umanità nell'era dei nuovi poteri, Luiss University Press, Roma 2019 (ed. or. 2019).
[21] Ibidem.
[22] G. Lovink, Ossessioni collettive, cit., p. 43.

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