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THEOLOGY OF TECHNOLOGY | A place to be fully human

Where are you when you are online? When scrolling the internet or social media, where would you say you are? Perhaps you are at home or the office or a waiting room. When we’re online, our physical location seems to matter less. Focused on the screen, the rest of the world kind of fades away.

As the pandemic has taught us, work and school don’t have to be conducted in a shared physical location. As long as we can “connect,” any place can become work or school.

The dining room table, once reserved for the family meal, has become a multifunctional space that doubles as a school room or office desk. This is understandable given the current conditions, but it deeply affects our sense of place.

If places and objects are no longer set apart but repurposed for “practical reasons” then they can lose their distinctiveness, their original purpose, you might even say their sacred character. Think of the churches forced to close that have become breweries or nightclubs. The physical place loses its sacred meaning and purpose.

Where are you? God asked this same question of Adam after he had eaten the forbidden fruit in the garden. If God knows everything, why did He have to ask Adam where he was?

St. Augustine said it was a reminder to Adam that there was nowhere Adam could be once God was not in Him. Yes, Adam was still physically in the garden (hiding), but his sense of the place changed as a result of his disobedience. For Adam, the garden went from a place of peace to a place of fear. No longer a sanctuary, the garden became a hiding place, a place of shame.

What happens when our home no longer feels like a sanctuary? What happens when the cares of school and work can no longer be left behind but are ever present as long as there are phones and laptops in the same space?

It’s hard not to notice the shiny Apple logo on the back of many of those devices, an apple with a bite removed. A reminder of our first parents’ mistake in the garden has followed us home, and it has changed the way we relate to the places we inhabit.

What did the serpent promise? That Adam and Eve could be like gods. What does much of today’s technology promise? The same! That we can be omniscient (Google) and omnipresent (Zoom).

And yet, after spending hours a day using these powerful tools, we are exhausted. Far from feeling like gods, we feel even less human.

When my children are online with a glazed look in their eyes, I often ask, “What are you doing?” They tend to answer in the flat zoned out tone of someone who is not fully present. “Playing a game.” “Chatting with my friends.” When I see them so engrossed in a screen, sometimes I too want to ask, “Where are you?”

St. John Paul II called the internet the new “Areopagus,” a new forum for human communication and culture. However, it’s important to remember that the internet is not a place. It’s not a superhighway, it’s not a community, it’s a network of bits and servers that project images that fall desperately short of reality.

Tonight, reconnect to the real by clearing off the dining room table and sitting down with your family, your roommates or just yourself and God. Break bread, drink wine and give thanks for the spaces and places that God gives us to be fully human.

Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.

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