AN AMERICAN VIEW

The Cardinal and the computer revolution

If you are going to propose marriage, or apply priestly balm to the spiritually bereft, compu-babble just won’t do the trick

FRED BRUNING January 23 1995
AN AMERICAN VIEW

The Cardinal and the computer revolution

If you are going to propose marriage, or apply priestly balm to the spiritually bereft, compu-babble just won’t do the trick

FRED BRUNING January 23 1995

The Cardinal and the computer revolution

If you are going to propose marriage, or apply priestly balm to the spiritually bereft, compu-babble just won’t do the trick

FRED BRUNING

AN AMERICAN VIEW

By virtue of his job as archbishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York City, John Cardinal O’Connor naturally has an interest in matters extraterrestrial so it was not surprising when the shepherd of five million departed the other day for a brief visit to cyberspace.

Yes, O’Connor went “on-line,” as the chipheads say—that is, for 40 minutes, the archbishop answered questions posed by users of the computer information service called Prodigy. To some, organized religion may seem anachronistic and incapable of adjusting to modem realities, but the complaint obviously does not hold in that portion of the realm overseen by O’Connor. The archbishop was meeting the people where they live, right there in the vast beyond of Pentium paradise.

Little of note transpired during O’Connor’s inaugural voyage. Questions were respectful. No one let fly the kind of nasty comments known to the e-mail crowd as “flames,” and while one young man who identified himself as gay and an AIDS victim said he felt “persecuted” by the church, participants mostly were interested in talk-show trivia. How many times had the cardinal met the Pope? Who was O’Connor’s favorite author? Was he “computer literate?”

A master at public relations who has hosted a television program, writes a column in the archdiocesan newspaper and works the media better than most politicians, O’Connor said at one point that he thought the computer had considerable potential for parish outreach. “I believe the church can use anything that helps us talk to the people,” he remarked, according to an account in The New York Times. “We’re not talking to the machines. They’re helping us talk to the people.”

Those are words sure to delight the marketing boys at Apple and IBM, but one cannot help but blink at the archbishop’s analy-

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York. sis. With all due respect to O’Connor, it really is not possible to “talk” to people by computer, any more than it is possible to engage God by shouting at the sky. Cyberspaceniks may protest otherwise, but even the most fulfilling on-screen exchange does not qualify as conversation, which tends to be a ragged, unpredictable enterprise sublimely characteristic of that creaky breed known as humans.

When the process is cleaned up, made sleek and slender by keyboard and video display, the emotional sizzle of real-life “interface” evaporates. Something else is achieved, of course—a kind of high-tech reciprocal trade that allows for maximum economy and convenience—but if you are going to propose marriage, or tell your kid to sleep tight, or apply priestly balm to the spiritually bereft, compu-babble just won’t do the trick.

But why hassle the poor archbishop? He wasn’t claiming any on-line miracles, just innocently raising his own hosannah to the miracle of personal computing. In that regard, O’Connor is part of a very robust congregation. Daily, we are instructed through advertising and personal testimony that the electronic age will be an extraordinary and transformative time—an epoch when, at last, all things indeed are possible. There is a religious fervor about the subject, and an implicit dividing line drawn. Either you believe in computers and will be saved, or you will suffer the consequences.

Far and wide, the good news is preached. Mitch Kapor, who designed the renowned Lotus 1-2-3 program, talks stoutly about the computer’s potential for enhancing Jeffersonian-style, participatory democracy. David Gelernter of Yale University foresees computers with “emotion” in his book The Muse in the Machine. Frank Tipler, a respected professor at Tulane University who wrote The Physics of Immortality, argues that by the time Earth vaporizes in seven billion years, computers will re-create the dead through a kind of cosmic imaging and assure life everlasting. Fancy the idea? Enter the password: Hallelujah.

Even Newt Gingrich, conservative Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, has suggested tax credits for poor people who buy laptops so that unfortunates, too, can afford to cruise the information superhighway. Sounds swell, but hard-pressed Americans should not expect enabling legislation anytime soon. Remember, this is the same grudgeful Newt who bad-mouthed welfare moms and wanted to send their kids to orphanages. Could it be that in Gingrich’s tomorrowland, machines count more than motherhood?

Speaker Gingrich and everyone else should settle down, sign off, take a breath. The computer is a grand invention with a million splendid applications, but it is not apt to unlock the secrets of the human spirit or fashion a “new man” for the next century, or guarantee our reservations for heaven. Those who argue that computers make information instantly available—and, therefore, necessarily hasten enlightenment—forget that people must first want information and, by the way, that plenty already is in circulation, and that we often are a pretty snarly lot, just the same. Besides, it is not as though only civilized material will flow through the Internet. Sure, you will be able to call up a quick hit of Socrates. You’ll likely be able to get the latest skinhead screed, as well.

And what about literature? Essayist Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies, claims that the deep, trance-like concentration associated with serious reading is undercut by the hip-hop nature of electronics—by the “perpetual present of the impulse, the beep, the flickering cursor.” Pulling Shakespeare onto the VDT is a cinch. Treating the Bard with more respect than Super Mario Bros, is another matter.

So let us not go too giddily into the next dimension. Reflect upon John Cardinal O’Connor, who despite high hopes for computers, writes his newspaper column longhand and, on-line, exercised restraint. When addressing Prodigy users, O’Connor replied by voice while an aide fed his words into the system. Electronic devices may be glorious, but the herald angels still want to sing.