As part of the Vincent Pallotti Institute Spring Lecture series on “Welcoming the Stranger,” The Lay Centre organized a morning discussion about virtual life and its consequences for human relationships.
The speakers were Jesuit Father Peter Lah, professor of communications at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and Filipe Domingues, journalist, doctoral candidate and a Lay Centre leadership scholar. They reflected on the theme, “Meeting Virtually, Loving Virtually: Paradoxes of a disembodied life.”
“Internet has become a new basic need in our society,” said Father Lah, projecting a slide with Maslow’s pyramid of basic needs (pictured below), but adapted to include Wi-Fi and a battery.
“People use social media mainly to meet other people, to keep in touch with others or to have fun,” he said, showing statistics from several countries.
Technology gives people new opportunities to “meet virtually,” he said. However, it poses new risks, too.
“Doing things through technology gives us the illusion of keeping our lives under our control. We feel safe. A playground seems more dangerous than a video game,” he said.
He warned that social media companies, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and others use personal information to learn about users’ daily habits and tastes and to offer products that match their consumption practices.
“These days, six in every 10 Americans get informed through social media,” he said.
Speaking on “loving virtually,” Domingues said many people worry that online relationships are not able to replace face-to-face relationships. For him, that is a minor concern.
“In our days, we cannot speak anymore of a separation between real world and virtual world. We live in one single reality that is made of physical and digital environments and we transit back and forth between them in our daily lives,” he said.
Citing sociologist Barry Wellman, he noted the “pervasive” adoption of smartphones and the fact that people do not “access” internet anymore. Rather, they live a great deal of their lives online.
Domingues also cited new media scholar Sherry Turkle, who speaks of the dangers of online relationships, namely how people maintain both closeness and distance at the same time. People have “the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” she argues. In short, she describes people engaged in online communication as being “alone together.”
Domingues said he believes the real question to ask now is: how can mediation complement face-to-face relations and vice versa? Human relationships are always problematic and difficult to sustain, he said. On the one hand, social media makes it easier to meet people. On the other hand, it is more difficult to deepen and maintain bonds of friendship and dialogue.
The same dynamic has been observed in the current mega-trend of worldwide migration, he said. Smartphones and social media are helping people to migrate: they allow migrants to find relatives they are looking for; to keep informed about conditions on their route and at their destination; and to keep in touch with their families and people they left behind. Refugees can spend up to one-third of their disposable income on staying connected.
In extremely mediated times, Domingues said, people must find new ways to encounter the other, the one who is different. The digital environment requires a new ethics of hospitality, he said.
Domingues cited the late media scholar Roger Silverstone, who proposed that in the real and pluralistic “mediapolis” in which we live, people always have something in common with the other. It is necessary to acknowledge differences and similarities, but also to keep a “proper distance.”
“Only then we can offer resources of judgment and reflexivity,” Silverstone claimed.
According to Domingues, it is hard to practice hospitality on the internet, because it is an open space, without a home and a host. In Silverstone’s words, there is still a need for broadcasting and for the “meaningful and effective exercise of individual and institutional responsibility.” This is possible only if people give a place to the other in their lives and in society.