Pope Francis Calls the Internet a "Gift from God," Points Out Problems Including the Digital Divide
Latinos are one of the fastest growing segments of internet users, which also happens to be predominantly Catholic. For Catholics, if there was any doubt that Pope Francis like the internet (he tweets from his account @Pontifex), there isn't now: Pope Francis has called the internet a "gift from God."
While Al Gore might argue it's a gift from him, Pope Francis wrote the comment calling the internet "something truly good, a gift from God" in a statement released on Thursday.
The statement sounds like an official seal of approval for the internet, but Francis's overall message was more cautious and varied than that. Francis made the comment in a message about the Catholic Church, communication, and dialogue:
"The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. We need to resolve our differences through forms of dialogue which help us grow in understanding and mutual respect. A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive. Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity."
However, Francis is aware that the internet can affect people in several negative ways.
"The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests," wrote Francis. This concept, often called the "filter bubble" by sociologists and internet activists, describes the phenomenon where websites that let users personalize their sources of news and information -- or, like Facebook's News Stream, automatically selects information sources based on previous activity -- actually has an effect of isolating a user from conflicting viewpoints by filtering them out. The user then becomes more implacably set in his beliefs because he exists in a personal ecosystem of information that only confirms his ideology and prevents anything that might challenge them from making it in.
Francis's message encourages dialogue instead, saying the internet's filter bubble effect "calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen. We need also to be patient if we want to understand those who are different from us," wrote Francis. "People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted."
Another problem with the internet that Francis expressed was the real-world isolation that can occur when users are constantly, obsessively connected to the internet, which is particularly a problem with social media. "The world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings. The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbours, from those closest to us," said Francis, going on to point out another problem that particularly affects some Latinos -- the digital divide. "We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind."
However, Francis thinks these problems "do not justify rejecting social media," and can be overcome by realizing that communication comes ultimately from humans, not technology: "May the light we bring to others not be the result of cosmetics or special effects, but rather of our being loving and merciful neighbors to those wounded and left on the side of the road."
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