Last Sunday was the 46th World Day of Communications. For that celebration, Benedict XVI gave us a very profound and insightful text for our reflection. He titled it “Silence and Word: Path of Evangelization”. I want to share some of my reflections on that document with you. I must have opened my Facebook account sometime in 2009. Then, I had little idea of what Facebook was. I went to visit an old friend at his office in Gaduwa Estate on the suburbs of Abuja and I saw him chatting on Facebook. I had heard quite some nice things about the new social network and I asked him to teach me how to sign up. He did. Later, I opened my own Facebook account. At this time, the concept of social network was still in gestation. Little did I know that we were on the brink of a revolution that was destined to consume the time and talents of millions of people all over the world. Today, it is a whole new ball game.
When the late Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc. presented the iPhone in 2007 he said: “Today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products. The first is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device. Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices, this is one device, and we are calling it the iPhone.” It’s true that this Apple gadget was innovative. Not long after, other companies followed suit in producing Smartphones. With a proliferation of all kinds of brands offering the open source Android operating system, a high percentage of people have come to own a Smartphone. It’s no big deal to own a Smartphone. It’s affordable. Everyone is getting one.
But there is a problem. While everyone may be getting a Smartphone, not everyone is getting smarter. We have convinced ourselves that we have to listen to music all the time. Other people are content with downloading limitless number of applications that they probably won’t use. But since there is enough memory space, it’s okay to download all sorts of junk. We have simply reached a stage where we just keep bouncing endless chat and text messages back and forth with our digital applications. All that is “free of charge”; we aren’t being charged for them, so it’s convenient. Families sometimes don’t remember what family life is because everyone is too busy on their own phone looking into “urgent” affairs. This is also the new trend creeping into religious and contemplative life. “Secularized culture has penetrated into some Western religious orders” Cardinal Franc Rode, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, once said, “and yet religious life is supposed to be precisely an alternative to the ‘dominant’ culture instead of reflecting it.” What should be a sign of contradiction has become a supporter of the status quo. In our highly mobile bustling world, being utterly absorbed in mindless activism has become the new business. We simply cannot be silent. We’ve got to talk and chat away endlessly. Even while crossing the expressway, we can keep “pinging” on our Black Berry Smartphones without watching the road. No vehicle can hit us. It’s a free world.
Then there’s also the camera. For better or for worse we can observe unbridled behaviour of so many people clicking pictures of anything that catches their fancy. It is a little sickening to see people click pictures with their mobile phones at the scenes of accidents or upload photos onto Facebook of aborted foetuses. The pristine values of discretion and discernment are steadily depleting. This tidal wave of cell phone technology has swept us off our feet. People of all ages are finding themselves driving on new technological highways without having a license to drive. If the Internet was already addictive when we were surfing on our desktop at home or on our laptop at work, today we have the addiction in our pockets. We can spend a lot of time looking at our phones.
Thomas Friedman, one of America’s most brilliant journalists and three-time Pulitzer Prize Winner says that in this flat world created by the diffusion of new information and communication technologies, “everybody is connected but no one is in control.” In the past, technology helped reinforce centralization and hierarchy because it gave the persons with access to that technology the power to reach the rest of society. But today’s information revolution is producing thousands upon thousands of outlets for news and information that make central control impossible and dissent easy. The flip side of this new wave is that this freedom of information and communication technology means that almost anyone can get his hands on anything. Fareed Zakaria, another of America’s most gifted commentators on global politics puts it bluntly in his 2003 book, The Future of Freedom. He says: “Today if you want to find sources for anthrax, recipes for poison, or methods to weaponize chemicals, all you need is a good search engine.” As someone once posted on Facebook, “Life was a lot easier when Apple and BlackBerry were just fruits.”
Now, what is there to look at that makes virtual life on cyberspace more interesting that real life? Well, if you’re on Facebook, you are connected to a network of people (whom you may know very well or not know at all) who have been accepted by you as “friends”. You can read what they’re thinking or doing or saying. Sometimes they may refer to you or say something about you. Someone’s holiday to some faraway land can be narrated through all the pictures he uploads on Facebook. All of us are curious to see pictures. It’s very easy to spend hours just browsing through pictures on Facebook, commenting on them and “liking” them. From a social angle, this kind of facility makes Facebook very attractive. It’s been extremely easy to keep in touch with some friends from high school years. Likewise, they have many-a-time enjoyed seeing the pictures I post too. The only hindrance here is that if I give free rein to my curiosity, I will immerse myself in a virtual world of 971 “friends” that I presently have and escape from the real world and real friendship. Believe me, that is not friendship. It is distraction.
Benedict XVI was perceptive when he spoke strongly about this in his 43rd Message of World Communications Day in 2009. He said: “It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop on-line friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbours and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation. If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development.”
For a long time Facebook has been “clean”. Recently I’ve had my doubts about it. Some time ago, a “friend” posted something on my wall that said: “Find out how sexy you are…click the button below”. To click or not to click? That is the question. If you click on one of these applications, there are two outcomes. One, the application tells you your sexiness as a percentage (so what?). The second consequence is viral: that application is posted to all your “friends”. Even if one or two of them click on the application, the same will be diffused to all their “friends”. In other words, it’s not only you who waste time; you end up wasting many other people’s time when you click. Recently, Facebook has incorporated a feature that allows you to “subscribe to” people you have never seen before. The right hand column of my profile currently dis
plays small icons of three or four scantily clad women, each in provocative positions. I’ve tried to shut this window. It appears that there is no way of doing it. If I click to close any of these options, another voluptuous woman pops up! So, what do I do? Refuse to sign in of Facebook? If I do this, I miss a global opportunity to positively influence people I come in contact with. I also miss connecting with old friends who I have not seen for quite a long time. If I have to remain on Facebook, I’ve got to exercise great discretion and moral choice of what to click on and what to subscribe to. That’s a better choice.
So are we to decide in favour of technology or against technology? Well, as many of us would have noticed, the case has been made over and over again that modern digital technology is at the root of some of the problems mentioned above. It’s tantamount to people saying that fast food joints are the cause of putting on weight. With this erroneous logic, the solution is to shut down all fast food restaurants. Burgers and fries don’t make us fat unless we lack the self-control that it takes to say, “Enough!” The Internet, Facebook and mobile phone technology are all very good in themselves. But they are not value-neutral. They are value-laden. How we use them is what makes the difference. Parents should be concerned about how their children adapt to this fast lane world. They don’t have to know everything about technology but they should try to talk to their kids about their “friends” on Facebook and how they use the Internet in general. Again, I have to refer to Pope Benedict XVI. His 2007 Message for World Communications Day captured this problem. He titled it “Children and Media: A Challenge for Education.” He talked about media formation for young people and identified two values that we need to be concerned with. “The formation of children is one. The other, perhaps less obvious but no less important, is the formation of the media” (no. 1).
He goes further to say: “The relationship of children, media, and education can be considered from two perspectives: the formation of children by the media; and the formation of children to respond appropriately to the media. A kind of reciprocity emerges which points to the responsibilities of the media as an industry and to the need for active and critical participation of readers, viewers and listeners. Within this framework, training in the proper use of the media is essential for the cultural, moral and spiritual development of children. How is this common good to be protected and promoted? Educating children to be discriminating in their use of the media is a responsibility of parents, Church, and school. The role of parents is of primary importance. They have a right and duty to ensure the prudent use of the media by training the conscience of their children to express sound and objective judgments which will then guide them in choosing or rejecting programmes available. In doing so, parents should have the encouragement and assistance of schools and parishes in ensuring that this difficult, though satisfying; aspect of parenting is supported by the wider community. Media education should be positive. Children exposed to what is aesthetically and morally excellent are helped to develop appreciation, prudence and the skills of discernment” (no. 2).
What is important here is the need for pacesetting. There’s no point in banning children from surfing the net or using Facebook on their phones. They need guidance on how to be mature and responsible. What we need more than anything today is to establish some form of “phone etiquette”, i.e some kind of understanding about how to use technology. And who are the pacesetters? The Pope mentioned them already in the message I just quoted above: parents, media industry, church, school. Here are a few tips I want to offer on these issues. One: We need to re-define some “sanctuaries of silence” i.e. moments when we turn off our phone (or put them on silent mode). Meal times with the family, get-togethers with families and friends are moments when silence, reflection and sharing require our active presence. Two: We should think before picking up a call while we are conversing with someone in front of us. Don’t get worried about “missed calls”. They can be returned, if necessary. If we really need to pick up the phone, we should excuse ourselves and be brief on the call. Three: We need to practise “technological fasting”. We should not be afraid to keep our phone in a drawer for some hours or for the entire day or week. That sounds absurd or downright stupid? No, it’s not. It’s very resting. Many “urgent” matters get solved without us. Four: We shouldn’t go to Facebook as if we were looking for a needle in a haystack. We should have a purpose and define the amount of time we want to spend and leave when time’s up!
If we do adopt this kind of phone etiquette, we will come to recall the value of silence. In his message for the 46th World Communications Day, Pope Benedict XVI says: “When messages and information are plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary. (…) it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.” In another place, he says: “Word and silence: learning to communicate is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak. This is especially important for those engaged in the task of evangelization: both silence and word are essential elements, integral to the Church’s work of communication for the sake of a renewed proclamation of Christ in today’s world.”
But will journalists and media people listen to this? On Ascension Thursday, just three days before the Sunday of World Communications Day, I paid a visit to Fr. Anthony Akinwale, the President of the Dominican Institute in Ibadan. We shared some thoughts for close to two hours at lunch which he took rather late because he was preparing his reflections for a lecture that focused on the World Communications Day Message of the Pope. The lecture took place at Saint Joseph Catholic Church Oke-Ado in the evening of that day and was attended by Catholic and secular media practitioners. Professor Akinwale’s reflection traced the historic origin of Pope Benedict’s theme for that Message: “Silence and Word” to a homily delivered by St. Augustine around 410 or 412 A.D. (I hope you do know that Benedict XVI is an Augustinian scholar. He had his PhD thesis in 1953 on Saint Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church and has since then laboured to conduct his theology in dialogue with the man Augustine).
As we drove from Samonda where the Dominican Institute is located to Oke-Ado the venue of the lecture, Fr. Akinwale asked me to read the text of the lecture since I would not be able to stay till the end of his presentation. The lecture was for 5 pm and I had to return to the Seminary before 6 pm when outing was meant to end. Fr. Akinwale is a man who is well gifted in speaking in paradoxes. Even the title of his lecture sold him out: “Without Silence, there can be no Communication.” One of the fascinating statements he made to me as we drove to Oke-Ado, which is primarily why I am narrating his story here, is that “Human beings have always been victims of journalists.”
But the question still remains: Will journalists and media people listen attentively to what the Holy Father is saying? Well, if secular journalists do not – and I doubt that they will not listen – Catholic media practitioners have no option. They have a moral obligation to listen to the Pope. And not just listen, but to communicate and incorporate their thoughts and reflections regardin
g the Holy Father’s Message in the professional ethics of their noble vocation. This is the sure path to evangelizing the digital globe: allowing our faith to shape our understanding of the world and how we relate with the world. Finally, every person – young and old – must know how to be silent in his own company to adequately face up to a new technological culture. We don’t have to lock it out. But we do have to learn how to control technology and master its use. Is that not why God endowed us with reason and gave us dominion of responsible stewardship (not domination) over the things he has created?