Pope Wants Technology To Make Us Better Humans

“We have the freedom ... to put technology at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral."

In an address to a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday morning, Pope Francis urged lawmakers to have compassion for the most vulnerable among us, including the poor, immigrants and refugees seeking safety and opportunity. When the pontiff called on Congress to take "courageous action" on climate change, he also talked about the role he sees for technology in the world, quoting a papal encyclical published earlier this year.

“We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology,” Francis said, “to devise intelligent ways of developing and limiting our power, and to put technology at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral."

Given this pope's past criticism of consumerism and the limits of market-based capitalism, his call for "healthier" uses of technology could include more action to ensure that we are manufacturing and recycling our mobile devices in environmentally sustainable ways -- though he did suggest that businesses "avert the most serious effects of environmental deterioration caused by human activity."

Aside from his conviction that technological progress could help combat climate change, a view supported by new advances in carbon capture but confounded by slow progress on renewable energy, the Pope's focus on the relationship of technology to power is timely.

In a moment when society is connected more and more through mobile devices and the Internet, new systems of networked accountability are challenging corruption and weak institutions everywhere around the world. As police body cameras are slowly introduced in U.S. cities, for example, citizens recording and distributing videos online are providing important alternate records to official accounts and a window into the lives of others.

As he spoke, however, Francis looked out at a chamber full of politicians for whom "Internet freedom" mean multiple things that often stand in opposition to one another. To some, "freedom" might mean laws that prevent Internet service providers from treating online traffic differently, or that preserve privacy rights for the consumers of technology. To others, it might mean giving citizens the freedom to tinker and connect, or it might mean freedom of expression or commerce unhindered by government regulations.

When the pope urged lawmakers to put technology in the service of more "human" progress, he appealed to a higher purpose for the tools mankind is making today and in the future.

While it's probably a stretch to say that Pope Francis is supporting user-centric design, putting people and the public interest at the center of platforms, devices and policies, he calls attention to a universal truth: Our values are embedded in the software and hardware we create. That the head of the Catholic Church naturally prefers those to be grounded in the Judeo-Christian principles he espouses is self-evident.

The most important document that guides how technology can or should be used in the U.S. probably remains in the National Archives, enshrined in the Constitution; but moral guidance that religious leaders can provide on the ethics of that use will continue to be an important part of our conversation. Let's keep talking about it.


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