July 15, 2011

Seeking the Face of the Lord

When technology gets in the way of ‘humane communication’

(Editor’s note: While Archbishop Buechlein continues to recover from a stroke, we offer some reprints of his various columns for your enrichment. The following column is from the May 2, 2003, issue of The Criterion.)

The other evening, two guys drove by as I was walking in the neighborhood. Both were on their cell phones—not talking to each other, I presume. I wondered if the two fellows even got around to talking to each other.

The other week while picking up a few things at Target, I chanced upon two women chitchatting with each other on their cellular phones—two aisles apart! They were still visiting by phone as they approached the checkout clerks. I wondered if, at least in the parking lot, they got to talk to each other face to face.

Even more impersonally, I understand lots of folks spend hours communicating anonymously on the Internet. Are we using these fine technologies to become better communicators?

New technology makes communication so much easier. Whether we liked it or not, during the war in Iraq, there were virtually instantaneous reports on TV. Indeed, on one screen there could be as many as three or four segments of communication going on at once. Surely I am not the only one who can’t figure out if I want to listen to the speaking reporter or follow the news trailer at the bottom of the screen. The result is that I know but little about whatever is going on in our world.

I remember when the daily newpaper, USA Today, was first published. Journalists and others expressed concern that in-depth reporting was being jeopardized and that we were headed toward “quick and easy” communication of the news, sacrificing

in-depth knowledge. We are there. Obviously “quick and easy news” and the quick media “sound-bite,” like “fast food,” find a lucrative market in our society.

We have the opportunity to share more information more quickly than in any other era of human history. But are we truly better informed? Has there been a trade-off for “quick and easy”? We have more information available at any given time, but does it mean we are better informed or that we are better people?

The price we pay for convenience in communication like any good thing has its hazards, one of which is the fact that many people don’t really read anymore, at least not in depth. And maybe we don’t listen as well either. The further difficulty is that complex topics and issues of human concern are oversimplified to an amazing degree and thus mislead a large segment of the public.

There are studies that indicate that an astonishingly high percentage of the public lives by newspaper headlines or the sound bites of television or radio. If those studies are correct, we are not a well-informed people.

Of greater significance is what happens to interpersonal communication. The trend seems to be drifting toward more impersonal communication, for example, the two people talking on their respective cellular phones seated side by side in an automobile. I must admit that I still haven’t figured out why folks would visit with each other by cell phone two aisles away in the same store when they could meet in the aisle between.

Anonymous meetings on the Internet as a regular mode of communication do not bode well. If loneliness is the reason for anonymous communication, impersonal technology isn’t the best solution.

More opportunities for communication are surely a good thing. Yet, if we allow these means to become more and more impersonal, we are contributing to the trend of treating human persons as objects. If the singular driving motive for convenient communication technology is financial profit without regard for the needs of honest and complex human relations in our society, then our culture suffers.

Whether we examine the communication challenges encountered globally in human society or whether we reflect on the challenges of communication within our family homes, nothing can take the place of respect for the human person—all human persons.

We Catholics are deeply committed to fostering a culture of life, a culture that promotes respect for the dignity of the human person from birth until natural death. Humane communication is certainly at the heart of our concern.

We are a significant part of the market that is targeted by those in the business of communication. We do not help build a culture of respect for life if, wittingly or unwittingly, we support the market for forms of communication that make objects of our neighbors.

We need and value the convenience of new technologies as much as anybody else. What can we do? It is within the realm of our personal control to discern how we use these fine conveniences. We are also able to seek better in-depth information about matters of concern to our human family, in our homes and in our world.

We don’t have to allow others to do our thinking for us. †

Local site Links: