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Where are the young? Where is the playground for us to live out the Preventive System and Assistance? In more and more interactivity on the Web! In the second half of the last century, Marshal McLuhan said: “The medium is the message”, when everything was mass, presumably controlled and one-way, communication. Since then some years have passed and we realise that it is not only the case of media that convey one-way messages, or of new ways to communicate, but there is a cultural change involving technology, the individual, the community and communication. In the ever-expanding digital continent, interactivity is what it is all about; we live in it without being conscious of it as something normal. There are anthropological and cultural changes: we act, think, feel and are in ways that are different to when we were in the industrial, paper age. It is undeniable that concepts and experiences of space and time, person and relationships have altered. In the new continent there are “digital natives” who need new missionaries, new witnesses and teachers.
The processes of communication in society have become increasingly diverse, complex and comprehensive, involving individuals, groups and institutions in contexts, media, content, technology, shared and diverse languages. We can say today that communication, at least in much of the world, has become a right, and something which everyone can prodcue because there are many sources of information and possibilities for accessing it. Both information and communication have been democratised and this happens “on the Internet as space and as a medium”, and its main representatives are young people. Just see who are the creators of the most popular social networks and who is climbing the rankings of the richest people in the new world!
On the other hand I believe that we must change our idea of the Web. Let us not see it as a simple, usable tool for serving our needs and personal goals, but try to think of it and experience it as social and cultural space, with its own kinds of relationships and socialisation. It is an area where images, symbols, writing genres all interact and they in turn interact with people of different ages, social class, traditions and nationality, all together, regardless of space and time (where space and time indeed seem to hardly exist). This inter-cultural structural feature of the Web becomes part of its apparent technological and sometimes linguistic homogeneity. So now we have to learn not only to “use” but also to live in this digital space and these social networks with others, without leaving aside many other forms of communication which are also disseminated and valued via the Web.
Pope Benedict XVI`s Message for the 45th World Communications Day emphasises the positive side of social networks as a meeting space and place for communication so long as you look for and accept truth as its meaning and content, if it involves convinced and respectful witnesses, if those who surf and interact seek to be transparent, open to dialogue, without trying to hide something. This means that new technologies call for new and better relationships. For this reason, the Pope broadens the church community and its mission to include the digital area. Many bishops, priests and religious, many Catholics, already do this. Many of our Salesians and young people in our works also do it. Life is changing in such unexpected ways, ways not understood and perhaps not previously thought of. The playgrounds and youth centres are in new areas of virtual interactivity for educational and evangelising relationships.
It is clear that a new culture with new technologies requires a new evangelisation, a new education, a new ministry, a new way of being there, of working and relating within society, within the digital continent. Many of us have lived outside and somewhat behind this new continent, sometimes as `tourists`, others as `immigrants`, with not a little criticism and resistance, and with much nostalgia for a real and better past. Instead, teenagers are born into a digital world that belongs to them and to which they belong; they are its natives. The 26th General Chapter of the Salesians is very clear: it considers it necessary to change attitudes and modify the structures, passing from a timid attitude and a sporadic presence in media to a responsible use and a more incisive educational and evangelising activity ( CG26 104/5). The key and the principle challenge is, therefore, in how we understand the mission and a kind of presence in this youthful continent that expands and multiplies. The most important thing is not being native-born to this continent. Nor is it our shrinking back, getting discouraged or justifying our absence, being migrants, tourists or foreigners in the new and little known digital continent where our youngsters live. The most important thing, both for them and for us, is to know why we are there. The meaning of presence on this continent is called “digital wisdom”. In Salesian terms we can say “An updated Salesian Preventive System and assistance in order to evangelise, educate and guide young people in the digital world”.
New technologies create a new way of living, introduce new relationship, offer new meaning and not necessarily wrong meaning, although it may contrast with vertical, privilege-based traditional understandings. The Salesian, educated to think, believe, love, respect and desire all that is good for the young, to seek them out and offer them to God, everywhere, will not cease to do so under these new circumstances, when structures, languages and ways of being present have changed. The Preventive System and Assistance as a spirituality and pastoral approach need to be updated. Life and those to whom we have been sent demand this; where they are we too must be. The world of communication evolves with unexpected speed and it is our youngsters and their needs who are our criterion for renewal.
Rome, June 5, 2011
Fr Filiberto Gonzalez
General Councillor for Social Communication