The new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma—a film about the dark side of social media explained by the Silicon Valley innovators behind it—is a kind of public service for the digital age. Most of us talk about how addictive our smartphones are. We are concerned about the role social media is playing in the rise of outrage and polarization in adults, and isolation and depression in kids. Some might even already be aware of the mechanics behind all of this. But this documentary offers a full look behind the curtain to anyone who wants to see it—and it’s not pretty. One particularly impressive figure is Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. Harris has coined the phrase “human downgrading.” Technology, he argues, is “downgrading our attention span, our relationships, civility, community, habits”—and all very much by design. The result is that we are less and less in control of ourselves than we think. “People really haven’t realized that technology is holding the pen of history right now.”
This dilemma hasn’t escaped the attention of Pope Francis. In his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, the pope references “texting” (49), “mobile devices” (44), and “social networks” (200)—the first papal encyclical to directly reference these three things—and dedicates a whole section to “the illusion of communication” online. Those familiar with Laudato Si’ know that the pope can be highly critical of modern technology, and his assessment of the digital world is no different. Pope Francis argues that it is contributing to a lack of privacy and laying bare of people’s lives “anonymously” (43); “campaigns of hatred and destruction” (43); “social aggression” (44); ideological influence and “fake news” (45); “fanaticism” even among Christians, and “defamation and slander” even in Catholic media (46); enclosed virtual circles (47); and the spread of “information without wisdom” (47-50). He later writes that the internet affords us “immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity” (205), but it’s safe to say his assessment of the current state of digital communication is largely negative.
So what do we do? We certainly can (and should) make our voices heard, and join Harris and others in demanding more humane, ethical, and regulated digital technology. But in the short-term, we might follow the philosopher Kierkegaard’s prescription, which is all the more relevant in 2020: “The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I should reply: Create silence!” Pope Francis, too, mentions silence three times in his section on digital technology.
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