Univ 2013. Reality Check: Discovering Human Identity in a Digital World

The digital world is opening a world of possibilities in communications, in the economy and in personal relations. Even twenty years ago, only a few visionaries would have guessed how naturally we would come to terms with this world. The Internet and its associated technologies allows us to communicate with an ease unprecedented in history: to spread ideas, share information, offer help, resolve problems, get to know people with similar interests, develop business projects…

But this digital revolution often seems to be going faster than we can properly take in, and to be taking place in a fragile cultural context, one marked by fragmentation and the lack of a clear vision of what it means to be human. There is scepticism regarding the possibility of discovering any universal human values; a matter-of-fact acceptance of the notion that cultural differences seem to be insuperable, in spite of our noble desires for world peace; the conviction that the human being has an unlimited capacity for self-reinvention, and that everything that is technologically possible is, for that very reason, desirable: this is the shifting ground of postmodernity, which places its trust in the new technologies in the hope that they will lead to the much-needed terra firma of a truly human world. But technology alone, with all its advantages and benefits, has no power to tell us what are the signs of human identity.

Human identity is linked not simply to the preservation of the individual and collective memory, but rather—above all—to the possibility of conceiving one’s own existence as a meaningful history, a narrative that does not dissolve into absurdity, into a mere collection of fragments of happiness, a frenetic succession of fleeting relations, or a “progress” with no clear direction other than progress itself. Identity is forged in the continuity of a conversation open to ourselves, to others, and to reality; in the determination to discover the roots of a genuine human ecology and to develop our own lives in consequence.

The demands of constant connection and instant information; a de-localization which allows us to do different things in different places simultaneously; the creation of complete parallel virtual worlds, with their own laws: all this brings with it the risk of de-personalizing human relationships, if it means that we are always “elsewhere”. As Benedict XVI has pointed out, if the desire for virtual connection becomes an obsession, “the person becomes isolated, and his real social interaction is interrupted. This also ends up by changing the rhythms of rest, silence and reflection which are necessary for healthy human development.”

The challenge is all the more urgent, then, to think in an interdisciplinary fashion about how we can preserve a time and a space of human dimensions in which people can put down roots, and from which they can build human worlds in all fields of social life: in the economy, in architecture, in education, in entertainment, in communications, in politics… In a society that appears to dissolve ever more into an overwhelming choice of possibilities, we need to rediscover its origins, the reality that is our home and that we can never renounce.