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The Culture of Encounter and the Governance of Technology

By: Alessio Pecorario

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and Global Governance

When we speak of the culture of encounter, it is tempting to view it as an exercise for solving great, intractable world issues. Yet, it is not called the “exercise of encounter,” but rather a culture of encounter. The culture itself, which enables all to routinely encounter the true face of their neighbor and care for one another, is the goal rather than a means to an end. The development of a culture of encounter, in fact, would solve many modern issues at their root. As such, it requires patient work through a praxis approach, or the cyclical development of theory, reflection, and practice. Let us consider the field of new and emerging technologies as a ground in which to build a culture of encounter.

First, which theories surrounding a culture of encounter are helped or inhibited by new technologies? Which theories of new technologies could be strengthened or challenged by a culture of encounter?

One of the most urgent issues of the post-pandemic world is the erosion of trust and the social contract. Information is not only fabricated, but also thrown in the balance to serve the needs of those in power. The erosion of social trust leads to a loss of overall fraternity and eventually to violence, examples of which are plentiful at this point in history. New technologies have played a particularly salient role in the erosion of trust, through widespread manipulation of information on social and traditional media. Pope Francis writes in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti: “What is true as long as it is convenient for someone in power stops being true once it becomes inconvenient.” As a consequence, “every threatening situation breeds mistrust and leads people to withdraw into their own safety zone” (Fratelli Tutti, n. 25-26). Trust is both a product of and a precondition for encounter and the prevention of violence, both direct and structural, so it is vital to protect this cultural value. New technologies are being used to erode trust but could also play a role in building it–for example, blockchain might be useful in building a new arms verification system. Utilizing the moral imagination to develop theoretical uses of new technologies that serve the common good is greatly needed at this time of history.

Second, technological developments are seldom accompanied by ethical and moral reflection and risk governing human activity rather than serving it. Without a comprehensive moral and ethical framework, rapid technological advancements risk aggravating inequalities and leaving the most marginalized behind, something especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic which has exacerbated injustices. On the other hand, a far-reaching moral vision could direct these technologies towards minimizing harm and serving integral human development. Therefore, within the broader framework of the Vatican Covid-19 Commission, a New Technology for Peace and Integral Human Development Working Group was established, whose aim is to bring together experts and practitioners from varying contexts in dialogue to imagine creative solutions to complex technology-related problems. The working group encompasses many specialists from the most relevant new technologies who are working with theologians and Vatican authorities with the aim of increasing the awareness within the Church of the challenges posed by these new dynamics and, reciprocally, of inspiring experts and political leaders to promote the common good in the digital age. It is urgent more than ever before to heed the call laid out by Pope Francis in Laudato Si: “We can once more broaden our vision. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (n. 112).

This horizontal collaboration between science and religion or reason and faith can strengthen global solidarity and international trust in novel ways, especially by opening these discussions little by little to contexts outside the Western world and in an authentic, interreligious and intercultural way. Here it is vital to remember that the process of bringing together these experts and practitioners is itself encounter. Even if they do not come to consensus, the process itself fosters this culture and increases the reservoir of trust among actors. The difficulties inherent in the process show the real work being done. This in itself is a great success.

This encounter creates a vertical impact as well, a bottom-up approach from the local level to international governance. For example, the internet and digital tools are being used successfully in nonviolent strategies to prevent or transform violence and to build just peace. Many of these are small-scale, local projects using technology from the bottom up; others are larger projects that include digital technologies to enhance potential effectiveness, accountability, or transparency. For example, as cases of the coronavirus multiplied in Kenya, Map Kibera launched the Kenya COVID-19 Tracker using the Ushahidi open-source platform and worked with the Kibera News Network to map new COVID-19 cases in the Kibera slum, as well as resources available to protect over 200,000 densely packed residents. They also addressed rumors and shared accurate information about the virus using Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Meanwhile, at a high level, there are more than a thousand technology governance policy instruments in use worldwide. The learned wisdom from these local projects can move up to inform those decisionmakers charged with tech governance, often creating a positive tension between military experts. Starting with the wisdom of the local level, peacebuilders can use these concrete results to restore international trust and develop global, consensus-based norms to govern new technologies.

After the theories are developed and reflected upon regarding how best to deploy them, practice must naturally follow. The Church has a particular ability to link global philosophical and theoretical reflection with local practical wisdom to practice encounter in specific contexts. Although it does not intend to claim any universal solutions (Octogesima Adveniens, n. 4), the Church seeks to bring its wisdom to the world, mindful that integral human development is the path for peace (Populorum Progressio, n. 76). In the case of new technologies, the Church can first develop positions on the ethics of the uses of new technologies, drawing on Catholic social teaching. It can present local and global wisdom to international fora and campaign for concrete action. It can facilitate connections between various actors across the world and can host discussions among them. Then, upon further reflection on the efficacy of its practice, always according to the guidelines of true encounter and integral human development, it can change its positions based on global developments. In this way, a culture of encounter is constantly fostered, and new technologies may eventually be collaboratively and ethically governed.

Fostering a culture of encounter is a lifelong calling for each of us as individuals, not only within our own communities but also internationally. It holds simplicity at its heart. As Pope Francis exhorts us, “Let us not remain mired in theoretical discussions, but touch the wounded flesh of the victims.” (Fratelli Tutti, n. 261).