Benedictine Symposium Offers Solutions to Technology's Traps

Thursday, April 4, 2019

How should Catholics respond to the radical changes in technology in 21st century America? That is the question hundreds of participants and presenters asked at the Symposium for Advancing the New Evangelization March 29-30 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

New technologies have radically reshaped human interaction. Smartphones and social media are reshaping personal identity, artificial intelligence and robotics are reshaping industry, and new technologies are bringing medicine into new bioethical territory.

Presenters representing 33 different academic institutions, professional organizations, or diocesan offices, met to examine Technology and the Human Person at the eighth annual symposium sponsored by the Gregorian Institute.

Keynote speakers included Donna Freitas, who did extensive research on young people’s use of their smartphones for her book The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost.

She shared with the audience what college students are saying about technology in their lives. “You are a brand, and social media is the platform on which we can project our brand to the world,” one college student told her.

Freitas said 73% of the students she surveyed agreed with the statement: “I try always to appear happy/positive with anything attached to my real name.”

She said 69% of students she surveyed believe that smartphones have created the expectation that they must be “on” and “available both day and night.”

Yet, she said, the authentic love and harmony that young people long for is more elusive than ever.

“In always trying to appear happy and perfect, we are neglecting the very parts of ourselves that bring us real happiness,” she said. “We are becoming afraid of our true selves and expressing who we really are.”

Michael Hanby of the St. John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family was another keynote speaker.

He began his talk by quoting what Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si.

“We have to accept that technological products are not neutral,” wrote the Holy Father, describing a “technocratic paradigm” that “tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic.”

Hanby spelled out what that logic looks like, and said “The only salvation from technological fate is the rediscovery of the truth, a truth which – as someone else once said – sets us free.”

Featured speakers such as Sister Nancy Usselmann agreed. She said “The digital culture’s restlessness and search for new experience and constant pleasure only condemns the person and never provides true liberation.”

Ryan Pigg, a graduate student in Denver, said, “The conference really showed me that we’re not using technology right. But I’m used to people explaining the problem but not the solution. At this conference, I heard solutions about the way we deal with technology. My big takeaway was that Catholics tend to be on the side of too much nostalgia but there are ways to approach the problem beyond turning off technology entirely.”

Speakers suggested various ways of promoting authentic human relationships.

Brett Robinson is Director of Communications and Catholic Media Studies at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame University. He spoke about the environment that technological devices create. To combat the negative impact of smartphones and other forms of media consumption we need to create environments where they do not exist or at least are not the focal point.

Andrew Whaley of the Calix project creates coffeehouses where people can meet and discover each other in conversation.

The conference ended with a dinner talk by Mark Bauerlein who described — and then sampled for the Symposium — ways he reintroduces students to beauty, silence and introspection.

Bauerlein, Senior Editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, shared what he called “perhaps the most significant three minutes of music in Western history,” from Tristan und Isolde, a 19th-century opera by Richard Wagner. He also showed the ending of the 1962 Michelangelo Antonioni film L’Eclisse and explicated the Emily Dickinson poem “Further in Summer than the Birds.”

“Students have so much instant gratification,” he said. “Art can help them get to the transcendent.”

Benedictine College theologian Matthew Muller, the director of the Symposium for Advancing the New Evangelization, considered the event a success.

“One constant theme was the need for parents and educators to help young people develop the virtues to discern how, when and why to engage with social media,” he said. “Thanks to the work of so many people at Benedictine College and the great research by our presenters, participants have more tools to deal with technology appropriately.”