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THEOLOGY OF TECHNOLOGY | The online search for identity

Back in June 2013 an intrepid social media user set up a Twitter account to post lines from Herman Melville’s novel, “Moby-Dick.” Individual lines, one at a time, for seven years now. The lines are posted in no particular order and they are sometimes accompanied by an illustration or a photograph.

How many followers do you suppose the @MobyDickatSea Twitter account would attract? 1,000? 10,000? The answer is nearly 70,000 as of this writing.

This says something about our relationship to literature in the digital age, and our relationship to stories in general. The fear for years now has been that the internet is suffocating our ability to read books, especially long ones like “Moby-Dick.” Who has the attention span to read a 500-page novel?

The sound bite style of posting little bits of prose from such a gorgeous novel surely diminishes the story’s impact on the reader. And yet the hunger for great stories remains. What has changed is how we tell the story and how we see ourselves in it.

The same can be said of Scripture in the digital age. Social media are full of partial psalms and snippets of the Gospel. Is that a bad thing? Hasn’t the Church always been able to adapt to the new medium of the age to share the Gospel in new ways? Of course it has.

But as St. John Paul II said in “Redemptoris Missio,” it is not the content of a culture that defines its newness, it is the “new techniques” and “new psychology” that arise as a result of new technologies. In other words, the content of the Gospel is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, but the culture in which it gets expressed is always changing.

St. Paul VI said the tragedy of our time is the “split between the Gospel and culture.”

Healing the split between the Gospel and culture today starts with understanding man’s desire to spend so much time sailing (or surfing) the seemingly infinite abyss of the internet.

Like Ishmael, the famous protagonist in Melville’s novel, the digital sea seems to provide an escape from the “damp, drizzly November in (the) soul.” We seek information and relationships for hours a day and never seem to find exactly what we are looking for. Despite its apparent bottomlessness, at the end of the day, the internet makes us feel as though we’ve come up short.

A million comments and tweets appear every second seeking attention, a kindred spirit, a witness. Each communique from the keyboard of users worldwide is one more shout into the abyss waiting for an echo of acknowledgment. Psychologically speaking, the internet has become more than a tool for gathering information and connecting to other people; it has become an arena for working out one’s identity. One comment, one tweet, one photograph, one line at a time.

“Call me Ishmael,” the immortal first line of Melville’s novel tells the reader that the explorer, like the sailor on the high seas of digital culture, needs to be known. To the extent that the need to be known is not being satisfied at home, at school or in the parish, the propensity to dive ever deeper into digital culture’s seductive depths is heightened.

Answering the existential question “who am I?” by merely associating with like-minded people online is too insular. We have to look outward, nay upward, for the one who answers our call, who knows our story, line by line, from beginning to end.

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

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