What does media ecology have to say about 'Laudato Si''?

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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NCR asked prominent media ecologist Thom Gencarelli to weigh in on a portion of Laudato Si' that warns against the use of media to "shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences."

Gencarelli, a past president of the Media Ecology Association, is the founding chair of Manhattan College's "Next Generation" Communication program. The Media Ecology Association describes media ecology as "the study of media environments, the idea that technology and techniques, modes of information and codes of communication play a leading role in human affairs."

Inherent in "the term media ecology is the idea of balance, taken from the balance in the natural environment," Gencarelli told NCR in March.

In section 47 of Laudato Si', Francis writes:

When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today's media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.

Gencarelli unpacks the passage:

The Pope, in #47 is concerned with our current-day media environment. He is concerned about how our recent developments in media have brought us to this place, and how they may continue to evolve and become an even more all-encompassing part of our lives. And with what effect. He is concerned in particular about our digital media: the Internet, mobile Internet, and social media. But he is concerned about how and why people use these media -- how they are guided by and, to a great extent, even controlled by them -- to the point that they live their day-to-day lives wrapped up within a mediated environment rather than in the environment that is their world and the people in it. He is concerned about the extent to which interposing a medium between ourselves and others cuts us off from real human contact. He is concerned about the ways in which our preoccupations with these media distract us from an understanding of and active, engaged involvement in the real human and social and political issues of our time.

It is a legitimate concern that people are learning to use media as an imposition between themselves and others. I know this from my own experience with the young people who are my students. Interactions with others are fraught with all kinds of difficulties, when we are shy or uncomfortable or intimidated, and when the sticky and messy matters of human relationships come to the fore and need to be dealt with. People may very well be learning not to communicate via media, but to protect themselves from others -- and from all of the messiness -- by hiding behind them. Media, such as our human language, are meant to create a bridge between and among us, not a barrier. Not a fortress.

The Pope is also concerned that there is an industry behind all of this that is unconcerned about the consequences of what it does and what it makes -- that the latest great golden door to success for someone with drive and ambition is to head to Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley, create a startup with an app or social media platform, and either make a billion dollars or sell it for a billion dollars. The point is not to create something of value -- something that makes an important contribution to our collective experience and for the greater good. That's too difficult. The point is the billion dollars.

The Pope is concerned, rightly so, with all of this. In fact, the more I listen to and read his words, and read about him, the more I believe he understands media. The more I believe he is a media ecologist. In fact, the Media Ecology Association held its annual convention just this past weekend at Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado. And there was a great deal of talk about Pope Francis, his words, his vision, his action, and his humanism.

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