As pontiffs go, Pope Francis isn’t much of a pontificator.

Instead, he’s shown himself to be a mostly kind, thoughtful and straightforward human being.

He chose Christmas, for example, to excoriate the hypocrisy of his own church’s cardinals, as they bathe in a “pathology of power.” That gold jewelry just doesn’t send the right message.

Today, for World Communications Day, the pope offered the thought that perhaps our gadgets are making us less, well, human.

My religious reading of Vatican Radio offers the whole text of an impassioned piece of communication.

The pope spoke of how the womb is the first place where we learn to listen and to be intimate with another being. The family, he said, is at the core of so much that is good in human communication. (I don’t know about yours, of course.)

His holiness is, however, disturbed by the lack of holiness in the world and technology’s role in that. He described today’s world as one “where people often curse, use foul language, speak badly of others, sow discord and poison our human environment by gossip.”

No, he didn’t mention Twitter by name, but we both know that it’s a veritable orgy of every one of these negative characteristics.

In lauding the family, the pope insisted that, in contrast to the world outside, it’s a school of forgiveness. (I don’t know about yours, of course.)

As he considers the state of modern media — and he clearly had social media very much in mind — the pope offered: “The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that ‘silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist.'” (He was quoting the mysteriously retired Pope Benedict there and very much agreeing with the occasionally foul-mouthed Louis CK.)

The truth is, though, that we disappear into our phones and laptops for long hours, at all hours. We voluntarily dedicate so much of ourselves to a digital world that is rapidly becoming not merely virtual, but actual.

The pope seems to appreciate social networks like Facebook — without mentioning it by name. He lauded media that “enable people to share their stories, to stay in contact with distant friends, to thank others or to seek their forgiveness, and to open the door to new encounters.”

I’m fairly sure he didn’t have Tinder or Grindr in mind with the thought of those new encounters. Still, his worry is that is that if we don’t make physical and emotional contact with others, we’ll allow ourselves to become dominated by technology.

He explained: “The Christian community is called to help (parents) in teaching children how to live in a media environment in a way consonant with the dignity of the human person and service of the common good.”

That is surely the heart of the problem. Is anyone clear about the concept of dignity anymore? It’s also tempting to believe that, these days, there’s less of a sense of common good than there has ever been.

The very human dignity of which the pope speaks — in which families were gathered around the dinner table and even talked — has often been replaced by families gathered around the dinner table staring into their phones.

It isn’t just families. Go to any restaurant and see how many groups and couples resist leaving their phones on the table and checking them regularly.

The pope described it like this: “The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information.”

I wonder, though, whether it’s already too late for that.

We have become so hypnotized by the instant “freedom” that our gadgets offer that our perspective is already warped. Many technologists — Google’s Eric Schmidt, for example — look forward to a future where our digital world is all around us and inside us. In this world, there’ll be precious little difference between consuming and being.

The difficulty for the pope lies in countering the view of assumptive technologists who simply describe the new, ultra-connected world as “where we’re going,” as if there was no choice.

The pope insists that, by attempting to refocus the core of communication on the family, he isn’t “fighting to defend the past.”

However, the future waits for no man. It drags him along as it’s simultaneously mesmerizing and entertaining him, until man is a different sort of being altogether.

About the author
Chris Matyszczyk mugshot

Chris Matyszczyk is an award-winning creative director who advises major corporations on content creation and marketing. He brings an irreverent, sarcastic, and sometimes ironic voice to the tech world.

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