The Church on Social Media

December 12, 2012. A message from Pope Benedict XVI: “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.” While not exactly an early adopter or a trendsetter, the Catholic Church can be surprisingly agile when it comes to using technology.

For the Church, technology is just a means, and when it comes to this subject, the nexus is still on human dignity. Early on, the Church was already cautiously cognizant of the far-ranging effects of social media. In his address to the Pontifical Council for Culture in February 2017, Pope Benedict said of social media: “…the new means of communication that encourage and at times give rise to continuous and rapid changes in mindset, morality and behaviour.”

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The Project

By now it should be clear that I have a little project running with regard to this column. Instead of random topics, I’ve been sticking to one theme across these past few weeks. That theme just happens to be the dangers of social media.

I started with my experiences in shedding my social media accounts and the resulting mental freedom that the decision afforded me. Then I covered how some tech executives who were instrumental in the success of these social media companies were beginning to have serious second thoughts about what they had created. This was followed by the effects of overexposure to technology on children. I rounded it out with a piece on the physical effects of our gadgets and suggestions on how, based on my own experiences, to detoxify from social media.

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Digital Detox

Now that we’ve started in the season of Lent, perhaps now is a good time to think about a digital detox: to reduce or even give up altogether our social media addictions.

First, we need to ask if this is really an addiction. Only you and those around you can really answer that question. Has social media become something you think you can live without? Is your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or what-have-you the first thing you check when you wake up in the morning? Is the glow of your phone or tablet the last light you see before you sleep at night? How many times in an hour do you check your timeline? It doesn’t matter what reason you concoct — even if you claim that you’re checking for orders or inquiries (have you ever worked this hard in your life, that you have to constantly check for orders on your phone?) — if your life is tied to your social media account, then you’re an addict. Only ruthless self-examination can reveal the truth to yourself.

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Civic engagement in the time of the #hashtag

Ethan Zuckerman is studying how technology is changing how we try to effect social change.

We used to make change mostly using law as our primary lever. Now we use the legal lever less; we use the levers of norms of markets and technology more often. #MeToo is an example of a norms-based campaign. It’s basically saying, “We’re going to challenge how people talk about sexual assault and sexual harassment.” And once we change that norm, there’s other legal pieces, market pieces, that’ll come into play. But at its heart it’s trying to change how we have certain conversations.

Zuckerman, by the way, is also known as the inventor of the pop-up ad, an achievement for which he has since apologized. In his reformed life, he is professor of MIT’s Media Lab.

Children and Technology

My wife told me the story of a friend who took her family on vacation to Japan. As is quite common with many affluent Filipino families today, their two-year old had her own iPad, the modern-day equivalent of a pacifier. The mother recounted how the Japanese reacted to the sight of a toddler with her own iPad with astonishment. Such a thing simply wasn’t done in Japan!

There’s different ways to view this. One, we could say that Filipino children are more technologically advanced than the Japanese. I mean, look how they swipe and navigate through the iPad with ease! Japanese children can’t do that! So hooray for Pinoy Pride! Or two, we could step back and ask why they don’t give toddlers access to mobile phones and tablets in Japan. (Or three, maybe it was just the community they were visiting that resisted this trend.)

Unfortunately I don’t have yet data on the extent exposure of young children to technology in Japan, nor of prevailing attitudes. Maybe some further research in the coming weeks will reveal this. But what I do have on hand are the parenting philosophies of the top minds of tech.

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The Social Media Cancer

I get it: it’s hip to be railing against social media now that everyone and their mother is on it. That’s conventional wisdom anyway. But what if, just what if, there’s really something wrong with social media and we’re just ignoring the signs because we think we can’t do without it?

What if it were the people who started social media — who made social media what it is — already warning us about its adverse effects? Surely that deserves a hearing?

Sean Parker, creator of Napster and one of Facebook’s first investors, made a bit of a splash in the news back in November 2017 when he announced that he had become a conscientious objector to social media. After achieving much success, Parker began feeling the pangs of guilt. Parker confessed that the design of Facebook was “to consume as much of your time and attention as possible.”

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