As young people worldwide, a few of us remember a time before it was commonplace to see a cellphone in every person’s hand. What impact does the ubiquitous presence of technology have in our lives as human persons with dignity? As defenders of human dignity, what do we need to know about technology? How can the Certified Training Program (CTP) help guide us through these questions?
I was prompted to ask these questions when I attended the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office event “Conversation with Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang” in September. Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s first cabinet member to work exclusively on digital concerns, sees digital access as a means of empowering the people of Taiwan. Tang has broken down restrictive regulations to online resources in Taiwan, and even established Wifi access as a human right. In response, Taiwanese citizens have used their new technological access to respond to societal human needs, such as by building Wifi-powered smart robots to help people with mobility issues with daily tasks.
Tang’s aim to maximize the “cognitive resources” of Taiwan connects to WYA’s core belief that the person is not the problem but the solution. The CTP shows that investing in people through education empowers them to creatively solve problems, creating a healthy society that is economically stable – exactly as Tang’s groundbreaking strategy of technological openness and idea-sharing ensures that every citizen of Taiwan has access to the resources they need to overcome social and economic problems.
However, the rise of digital technology has more than one face. In the CTP article “Learning How to See Again,” Josef Pieper warns that the pervasiveness of attention-grabbing entertainment technology damages our ability to attend to reality. When we are overstimulated by too much visual “noise,” he argues that our attention is scattered and we lose our ability to perceive reality as it truly is. This is crucially dangerous, Pieper forebodes, because the uniquely human ability to perceive reality is the foundation of our spiritual life. Our relationship to objective truth is the gateway to realizing our transcendent nature.
What does Pieper’s warning mean in real world terms? According to Nicholas Carr’s iconic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (2008), the Internet promotes a more fast-paced but shallow style of thinking, which is “chipping away our capacity for concentration and contemplation.” A five-year study at University College in London revealed that online reading consists almost exclusively of “skimming,” with few people engaging in complete articles. Carr describes his own experience of feeling a decrease in his ability to concentrate deeply on a book or other contemplative activity once the Internet had become normal to him. Overall, digital life may make us better at quickly skimming information, but it atrophies our ability to interpret the ideas we read or to ponder them deeply.
As WYA members, the CTP helps us process the two sides of this question. Taiwan’s use of digital technology is an inspiring example of how the digital world can be used to restructure society and empower individuals to creatively solve social issues, just as William McGurn describes in the CTP. However, Josef Pieper’s warning is also crucial; it reminds us that new technologies are beneficial only if we use them in a way that respects the full truth of the human person, including our need for a more deliberate pace of life to protect the contemplative nature that forms the basis of our spiritual selves.
I hope I speak for all WYA members when I say that I want the best of both worlds – the free exchange of resources which would have been impossible even fifteen years ago. Not only will it empower people around the world to build better societies for themselves, but it will also be a way of life that celebrates our unique human capacity for contemplation and transcendence. As a final reference to the CTP, this requires us to use the wonder of technology according to our “freedom for excellence,” as described by George Weigel in his CTP contribution “Two Ideas of Freedom.” Technology may tempt us to pursue it for its own sake, but in this situation, as in every other, we have the responsibility to use our freedom in a way that upholds the truth of the human person.
In the heart of the industrial revolution, Fredrick Winslow Taylor said, “In the past man has been first; in the future, the system must be first.” In today’s digital revolution, we face the same temptation to make the system its own end, instead of a means to uplift human dignity. For us as individuals, this might require us to put our phones down at dinner in order to focus on our family, or refrain from taking pictures of a sunset to post to Instagram and instead be present in its beauty. On a societal level, we as a human family need to decide carefully about which technologies to develop and why: do we need to integrate digitality into every aspect of our human lives? In what ways can we leave space to restore our attention and perceive reality as it is? Formed by learning from the CTP, we need to keep pushing ourselves as individuals and members of our societies to ask, “How does this affect the human person?”
By Kathleen Mawhinney, a 2018 Batch 3 Intern from the North America office