One of the most significant events in human history was the technological shift from scrolls to codices.
The change was largely driven by Christians and the result was a 20th century video joke where a help desk monk explains to a scribe in a monastery how to use this strange new technology – the book. Well that wasn’t really the result, rather it was the creation of a totally recyclable, totally portable technology suitable for individual use wherever you had light.
But while the Christians lead the way with the codex they are catching up, a bit late, with the next piece of revolutionary technology – the digital pad.
Recently we have seen the Pope Twitter, a bit after Britain’s monarch went on Facebook, and a whole new online future unveiled for the Vatican. We have had warning of this with increasing Vatican use of online communications. The Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication (Vatican City), Monsignor Paul Tighe was in Australia last year to talk about the church’s social media use.
A charming and ferociously intelligent Irishman, who disarmed even your ferociously atheistic correspondent, talked about how the church was trying to come to grips with social media and was frank about the generation gap between senior people in the Vatican and a younger generation who took new technology for granted.
The problem for the church though, is how to reconcile a technology which promises universal access to information and ultimate democratic participation with a theology which is in the absolute truth business. Twitter is not really a problem. It is hardly a symmetric communication technology other than our capacity to be awed by our betters sharing their moments with the rest of us – Shane and Liz; and Stephen Fry aiming to have more Twitter followers than anyone else; footballers generating publicity with “unguarded” Twitter comments etc etc etc. Blogs are also not a problem, although if the Pope launched one it might have more hits than any other currently available. There are just too many of them for any one person to search them all.
The problem is that online communications are supposedly about access, dialogue and democracy. Probably the only really original PR theoretical thought in PR came from two US academics, Jim and Larissa Grunig, who suggested that communication could be divided into two sorts – symmetric and asymmetric. The former was about monologues and the latter about conversations. (Guess which advertising is?) Conversations are the most effective because they build trust, and unless one of the parties is a consummate liar, transparency.
The reality is that this technological dream is partly an illusion and partly a nightmare. Governments can block the Internet; most of the claims about how Internet communications were crucial to the Egyptian, Iranian, Tunisian, Syrian et al uprisings were shown to be delusional at best; and, the sheer volume of Internet sources is such that people turn to the sources they trust or are familiar with. The best evidence for this is how the major media outlet websites are still the most popular news sites around.
The Church has been around for long enough to absorb this lesson – just like that other state which aspires to eternality, China.
So while many laughed at the Pope, while surrounded by corpulent red-capped Cardinals, tapping away at his i-Pad (and giggled about what great product placement Apple had achieved) he is probably on to something. He may not really be engaging in dialogue, any more than Queen Elizabeth is, but you can bet the hit count will be impressive.
One of Max Gillies’ most famous sketches was him, in the persona of John Howard (in plaid dressing gown sipping tea), talking through all the calumny and jokes thrown at him over the years by inner-surburban liberals. (This may have been written by Crikey’s own Guy Rundle I suspect). The audience loved it and laughed long and loud. But the Howard character finishes the sketch with the words: “You aren’t laughing now are you?”
Prophets of the revolutionary impact of online communications might ask the same question.
It is always fascinating to look at silences – they often tell us more than the loudest shouts – particularly when it come to the media where what gets reported is often less interesting than what doesn’t.
There has been media reporting recently about Chinese investment in East Timor – much of it bordering on the apocalyptic. What doesn’t get reported is what Cuba has done for East Timor. In February Xanana Gusmao visited Cuba to strengthen bilateral relations. A few facts from the visit: 101,607 Timorese people have learnt to read and write using the Cuban Yes I Can teaching method. The figure represented 44.1% of the number of illiterates that existed at the start of the campaign. There are also 225 Timorese students currently studying on scholarships in Cuban universities, 202 of them learning to be doctors.
On the other hand, it is perhaps fortunate the tabloids don’t know yet. This has probably spared us from stories about Fidel and Che’s ghost leading an invasion of the North West shelf oil rigs.
Declaration of interest: The author was foundation secretary of the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society.