Internet and the Defence of the Human Person
Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli
President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications
A new aspect of the anthropological question
The revolution we are witnessing and in which we are practically unconscious actors, spurred by technology's communication race, is far from over. We find ourselves before a panorama in motion, a landscape with some dynamics which make it difficult for us to maintain fixed, definitive opinions.
Human communication is probably one of the most rapidly changing aspects of our culture. Not only because of the sophisticated instruments employed but because new habits, languages, times and spaces emerge in which to carry out our daily communication.
Today, there are both natural and virtual spaces, divided into linguistic "galaxies" which place all participants, especially children and youth, in a common, shared world. Unfortunately, there also exists a new division between those who have access to this virtual space and those who do not even know how to make a telephone call. Those who struggle to earn a little bread and a glass of drinking water during the day. And the latter are still too numerous.
Therefore, the debate over the ethical challenges that the Internet poses to global society serves as an initial, powerful reminder to everyone's conscience.
The Internet by now is an essential element of daily, economic, and cultural life on our planet. The original characteristics of this new means of communication (immediacy, decentralization, interactivity, globality; freedom, diffusion and information sharing) in addition to these merits contain certain risks: exaggerated individualism, children's ability to access dangerous materials, invasion of privacy.
In fact, society itself must be educated to use these powerful means which are not only instruments but also fundamental elements of contemporary cultural development.
In his latest Message for the World Day of Social Communications, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted the crucial debate over the ethics of this new reality: "The role that the means of social communication have acquired in society must now be considered an integral part of the 'anthropological' question that is emerging as the key challenge of the third millennium.... For this reason it is essential that social communications should assiduously defend the person and fully respect human dignity. Many people now think that there is a need, in this sphere for 'info-ethics' just as we have bioethics in the field of medicine and in scientific research linked to life" (Message for the 42nd World Communications Day, 24 January 2008, L'Osservatore Romano English Edition, 6 February 2008, p. 6).
The Internet is the latest, and in many ways, the most powerful of all means of communication because it links all former methods. Faced with what marks an enormous leap in humanity's communication race, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications 2002 Document Ethics in Internet emphasized support of any ethical perspective: "As with other media, the person and the community of persons are elements central to ethical evaluation of the Internet. In regard to the message communicated, the process of communicating, and the structural and systematic issues in communication, 'the fundamental ethical principal is this: The human person and the human community are the end and measure of the use of the media of social communication; communication should be by persons to persons for the integral development of persons'" (n. 3).
This criteria remains invariable, an can be made clear in the principles of truth, justice, freedom and the common good.
When we say "Internet" today, we refer to something very different from five years ago. It no longer means computers connected to each other and web-sites as "shopping windows" displaying their contents. Today we are speaking of a polymorphic cultural sphere resulting from a series of elements, small and large, fixed and moveable, earthly and spatial, which interact among themselves on a world scale and by means of which people and groups dialogue, share, and publish in a thousand different ways.
To act ethically in today's society we must look "beyond the Internet" or, more precisely, "into the heart of the digital culture" in order to find those real people, those human groups who communicate through this culture. Our thoughts go first of all to those isolated and destitute communities who make up the Church in so many nations of the world.
We know well that these are people and communities out there who could significantly strengthen their ability to communicate and therefore greatly improve the quality of their lives if they would pool their resources, knowledge and information. Creating synergies, establishing networks, is the first step toward this "inclusion".
The Pontifical Council for Social Communications, for example, through the Computer Network of the Church in Latin America (RIIAL), seeks to foster the "digital inclusion" of this group not only by. providing computers but especially by encouraging a change in mentality, a "culture of the net". This would not initially include the use of the internet but would place itself practically at the community's service and its immediate needs.
Technology now offers us solutions which are efficient enough even for places without infrastructure. It means generating a true digital culture which gives rise to solidarity and which evokes a shared creativity, a greater communion and unity within the community, in a close relationship with the universal Church and in dialogue with the world.
It is also necessary to emphasize the urgent need to train youth. Pope Benedict XVI has more than once highlighted what he calls an "educative emergency", referring to the need to transmit true values to young people. Youth can learn a great deal with the new technologies; what they lack, however, is an overall view whereby values bear on choices and act as keys of interpretation in order to understand what they study.
They know technology better than we do, but perhaps they know themselves and others very little. For this reason, the Pope calls upon adults to be true educators. No longer are the legal or technical control of content sufficient. What must be proposed is the recovery of the dignity of the image of the person, respect for one's own privacy and that of others, and the spread of this culture.
Along with this urgency, there is that of the building capacity of adults, that is, the training in communication in so far as the digital gap is also generational. Many adults and even more elderly people are outside of this sphere of encounter, and they find themselves ever more distant from this world of youth and children, yet they still have much to teach us. To understand them, to enter into the fundamental principles of this culture, will help us to practice a real diakonia in service to it, finding our contemporaries of any age, wherever they are, so often alone, depressed, distant, who may be seeking in their hearts a mysterious Presence they as yet vaguely perceive.
Weekly Edition in English
3 September 2008, page 10
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