(The following is a guest guest commentary written by Helen Osman, secretary of communications at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)
Curiosity is a great attribute, although it can have its dark side. The cliche “curiosity killed the cat” warns of the dangers of venturing too far into the unknown. But think of how our lives would be if humans weren’t curious: How many inventions, discoveries or causes wouldn’t have happened?
The Internet, and everything connected with it — even those ubiquitous cat videos — certainly wouldn’t be available to us. Indeed, not just inventors’ curiosity can be credited (or blamed) for the “digital continent.” Our very human desire to socialize, to connect with people who are like us and to explore new relationships — our innate curiosity about the “other” — may be what has caused the explosive use of digital networks and devices. In other words, the fact that we are curious about others (and their pets) makes digital social media so attractive.
Pope Francis talks about curiosity in the 48th World Communications Day message, “Communication at the service of an authentic culture of encounter.” Intended for World Communication Day (June 7-8 in the Davenport Diocese) by the Catholic Church, the message reflects on how media, in all its forms, can be of service to our desire to connect, as long as we approach those connections from a very human perspective.
“The world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings,” Pope Francis writes. “Communication is ultimately a human rather than a technological achievement.”
So how can we make our digital connectivity more human? It depends upon how we connect, the pope suggests. “We need, for example, to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm … to be patient if we want to understand those who are different from us.”
Patience, however, is not easily learned if one is steeped in the digital culture. The very fluidity of the digital environment actually encourages impatience. We can start watching one of those cat videos online, but while we have the video playing, our brain knows that behind that browser frame is a whole world of potential. What am I missing? Is there an email from my boss that requires an immediate response? What’s the latest news? Should I be checking Facebook so I don’t miss something extraordinarily exciting?
Of course, we’ve always had the ability to skim through a book or stop reading a newspaper article after a few paragraphs, skipping over to a more interesting headline. But picking up a new book or a different newspaper required some physical exertion. The invention of the remote control brought a new convenience: We could stop watching a television program with the simple click of a button and move on.
But our fast, portable devices, which can be accessed with a mere swipe of a finger, may have inadvertently created a new anxiety for us. The strain of considering, literally every few seconds, whether or not to divert our eyes and become engaged in a new story or conversation requires new discipline.
Pope Francis suggests that new discipline can be summed up in one word: Encounter. Instead of a place to placate our idle curiosity, Christians can find the digital continent to be a place for solidarity, for learning not just about others’ pets and peculiarities, but also about their souls’ desires and yearnings. Truly listening to others requires us to pause, “to believe that the ‘other’ has something worthwhile to say,” and to attempt to understand them, the pope tells us. An encounter with another, as the pope understands it, requires honest dialogue and being open to being transformed by that dialogue. Digital social networks, he writes, “are one way to experience this call to discover the beauty of faith, the beauty of encountering Christ.”
Curiosity can kill cats and our attention span — unless it’s combined with patience. Together, though, curiosity and patience can take us way beyond cat videos.