Toward full presence

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May 31, 2023
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June 1, 2023

Toward full presence

Tech industry experts and entrepreneurs worldwide have been warning governments and societies to glance over their shoulders at the advances of artificial intelligence (AI). They all predict it may prove detrimental to human life and living if it is not properly regulated.

In the minds of many, those dire warnings conjure up visions of AI applications overtaking the world as seen in such sci-fi Hollywood movies like The Matrix, Eagle Eye, and the classic The Terminator.

Even today, there is speculation locally that the viral audio clip circulating on social media purportedly of the voices of two Tobago House of Assembly leaders was created by AI software. Really.

But before we consider the dangers of AI, society needs to look at what is directly before us in the form of social media.

A day after Pentecost, the Vatican released a pastoral reflection on Christian engagement with social media. Titled ‘Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media’, it was published on May 29 and addresses the challenges Christians face.

The Vatican Dicastery for Communication published the document, which was signed by its lay prefect Paolo Ruffini and its Argentine secretary Monsignor Lucio A Ruiz, who cited many of Pope Francis’ speeches from past World Communications Days.

The text is “not meant to be precise ‘guidelines’ for pastoral ministry,” the Dicastery clarified, but seeks to promote a common reflection on how to foster meaningful and caring relationships on social media.

According to a Catholic News Agency report, topics covered in the pastoral reflection include information overload, constant scrolling, not giving others one’s full attention, being an “influencer,” witnessing to Christ, “digital detox,” the need for silence, intentional listening, and building community in a fragmented world.

It makes for interesting reading – if you have the time and attention span to peruse the 20-page text. Here are some of the highlights we can all like and share.

“One significant cognitive challenge of digital culture is the loss of our ability to think deeply and purposefully,” it warns. “We scan the surface and remain in the shallows, instead of deeply pondering realities.”

The Vatican’s pastoral reflection posits that social media’s constant demand for people’s attention “is similar to the process through which any temptation enters into the human heart and draws our attention away from the only word that is really meaningful and life-giving, the Word of God.”

“Different websites, applications, and platforms are programmed to prey on our human desire for acknowledgment, and they are constantly fighting for people’s attention. Attention itself has become the most valuable asset and commodity,” it says.

“Instead of focusing on one issue at a time, our continuous partial attention rapidly passes from one topic to the other. In our ‘always on’ condition, we face the temptation to post instantly since we are physiologically hooked on digital stimulation, always wanting more content in endless scrolling, and frustrated by any lack of updates.”

The text highlights the need for silence and for schools, families, and communities to carve out times for people to detach from digital devices. “Without silence and the space to think slowly, deeply, and purposefully, we risk losing not only cognitive capacities but also the depth of our interactions, both human and divine.”

The document raises red flags about “pitfalls to avoid” with social media, such as aggressive and negative speech shared under the “cloak of pseudonymity”.

It also raises concerns about how social media companies treat people as commodities whose “profiles and data are sold.” The text underlines that social media “is not free: We are paying with minutes of our attention and bytes of our data.”

The document also encourages Christians to reflect on whether their social media posts are pursuing “followers” for themselves or for Christ.