From Francis’ encyclical on climate change, a perhaps unexpected passage:
47. Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.
A thought in response:
The idea behind the digital world is not new. In premodern times, the idea of artificial worlds, most often intended to deceive the hero or heroine, was the stuff of legend.
In “Lamia,” the English poet Keats ( 1795–1821)recounts a legend of just that type, set thousands of years ago. The lamia was a half-serpent who could conjure illusory worlds for her victims. I won’t tell you how it ends, but not happily.
Today, on the Internet, one can be hearing lifelike false news, be misled about the popularity or even value of a product or service due to the efforts of click farms and fake online reviews, put trust in someone who has undergone reputation management, form a relationship with someone who doesn’t exist, or even receive computer-generated messages allegedly from someone who has died.
The lamia was comparatively limited and probably couldn’t get work at a troll house today.
But many talented people living in the post-Communist or Third World, desperate for white collar work on almost any terms, can and do get such jobs—and many others are deceived thereby. It’s a looming social justice issue.
Some aspects of Francis’ encyclical have been and will be controversial, one would think, but here I would say he has got the problem right.
The awkward news is that the only cure for inauthentic relationships is authentic ones. That doesn’t mean giving up the Internet. It can be a great help in maintaining real relationships by diminishing the cost of staying in touch.
Still, we must always be aware that the things that flatter or excite us on the Internet are just as likely to be untrue as true. And it is much harder to determine in the virtual world than it would be in the real one who is a person and who is a hologram.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.