Digital Democracy (and Cybertheology)

Democracy and citizenship between login and log-off

I publish — without any modification — the text of my speech at the “Festival del Diritto” of Piacenza 2013

The internet is changing our ways of thinking and living. The recent digital technologies are no longer tools, that is, instruments completely external to our body and mind. The Net is not a tool but an «environment»in which we live. Perhaps even something more, a true and proper «connective tissue»of our experience of reality. Benedict XVI wrote in his Message for the World day of Communication of 2010:

«Church communities have always used the modern media for fostering communication, engagement with society, and, increasingly, for encouraging dialogue at a wider level».

It is all the more true if we consider how the Net has become important for the development of relationships among those belonging to what is now commonly referred to as «generation Y», that is those young people born between the 1980’s and the 2000’s. Generation Y is characterized by a great familiarity with communication, media and digital technology. It is the generation of the so-called web 2.0, in which relationships between people are at the center of the system and communication exchange, at least as much as the contents are.

The social networksdo not give expression to a group of individuals, but to a group of relationships between individuals. The key concept is no longer «presence» on the Net, but the «connection»: if you are present but not connected, you are «alone». You get on the Net to try out or to increase some form of «proximity», of closeness.

It is therefore necessary to understand well in what way the concept itself of «neighbor» — so dear in Christian terminology, and so tied to spatial closeness — evolves precisely because of the Net. Consequences for the political order will certainly follow from here.

The possible separation between connection and encounter, between sharing and relationship implies the fact that today relationships, paradoxically, can be maintained without relinquishing one’s own condition of egotistical isolation.Sherry Turkle has summarized this condition in the title of her book Alone Together, that is «together, but alone». Rather, «friends», precisely because they are always on line, that is available for contact or imagined as present to have a look at our updates on the social networks, are invariably present and then, precisely for this reason, they risk disappearing in a projection of our imagination. The fracture in proximity is given by the fact that closeness is established by technological mediation by which I am «close», that is near, to whoever is «connected» with me.

The true problematic core of the issue is the concept of «presence» in the era of digital media and social networks that develop a form of digital presence.

Digital existence appears configured with an uncertain ontological status: it sets aside physical presence, but offers a form, at times even vivid, of social presence.

Digital existence, certainly, is not a simple product of consciousness, an image of the mind, but it is not even a res extensa, an ordinary objective reality, also because it exists only in the occurrence of the interaction. The existential spheres involved in presence on the Net are in fact better investigated in their intertwinement. An «intermediary», hybrid world opens before us the ontology of which should be better investigated.

In the light of the considerations of being «neighbor», how is it possible then to imagine a future of the life of an ecclesial community in the era of the Net? Already in 2001 Manuel Castells understood well that the key question for us is the transition of the community to the networkas a central form of organizational interaction.Communities, at least in the tradition of sociological research, were based on the sharing of values and social organization. The networksare constituted through choices and strategies of social actors, whether they are individuals, families or groups.

The Church in the era of the Net could end up being seen as a structure of support, a hub, a plaza, where people can «gather», to give life to groups, or better «clusters» of connections. This vision offers an idea of community that takes on precisely the characteristics of a virtual community understood as lightweight, without historic or geographical bonds, fluid.

How to evaluate this model? Certainly, relationality on the Net works if the linksare always active: if a node or a connection were interrupted, information would not pass and relationships would be impossible. The intricacy of the vines in whose shoots flows the same sap then is not very far off from the image of the internet. The Church, in fact is a living body if all the relationships inside of it are viable. Previously in the Message for the World Day of Communications of 2011 the Pope noted that the web was contributing to the development of «new and more complex intellectual and spiritual horizons, new forms of shared awareness». The network of this knowledge gives life to a form of «connective intelligence». Mons. Gerhard Ludwig Müller, today prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in November 2012 had grasped the challenge clearly, that is the

«responsibility of the Church in the formation of a collective human culture, for which the society of today, with its network of international connections — global — provides the best prerequisites»

However, many questions remain open.

The Church, in fact, is not simply a network of immanent relationships, nor it is conceivable as and encyclopedic project, the fruit of efforts of men of good will. The Church has always a source and an «external» foundation and is not reducible to a sociological model. Belonging in the Church is given by an external foundation because it is Christ who, by means of the Spirit, unites his faithful ones intimately to himself. The Church then is a «gift» and not a «product» of communication. And this prospective helps us to understand how civil society itself is not a «product».

«Belonging» (ecclesial, civil…) is not the product of communication.

The steps of Christian initiation cannot be resolved into a kind of «access procedure» (login)to information, maybe even on the basis of a «contract», that also allows a rapid disconnect (log off). Rootedness in a community is not a kind of «installation» (set up) of a program (software) in a machine (hardware), that you can then easily «uninstall».

Here then is the knot: the City of God and the city of man are called to think of belonging in the era of the Net that, by its nature, is based on its links, that is its horizontal connections. Pope Francis has stated that citizenship is full only if it is read in the light of the experience of people who share a common horizon that transcends the floating and temporary balance of interests:

«It is impossible to imagine a future for society without a strong contribution of moral energies in a democracy that remains closed in pure logic or in the mere balance of representation of vested interests»

And therefore

Director of La Civiltà Cattolica @CivCatt, Consultor at Pontifical @VaticanCultura, Board of Directors @Georgetown University. Jesuit.