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St Joseph’s Theological Institute


From the midst of what sometimes seems a brave new world of communication—Web 2.0, blogs, mobile phone service from almost anywhere, video by mobile phone—we should not forget that the Church and humanity have lived through it all before. In fact, our communication revolution follows several others, dating back at least 3500 years, starting with the invention of writing, jumping to the mechanical writing of the printing press, to the electrical communication of the telegraph, and finally to our electronic world. At each stage, humans encoded communication in ever more complex symbolic and technical systems, which make communication more powerful but require more sophisticated interpretation. Both have an interesting and not always predictable impact on theology and Church life.

The pattern of our communication and the larger communication world, of which it forms a part, create a communication environment for human living. Like any environment, one can study it, and people do, under the general title media ecology. What can we know about the communication environment? Several principles apply to its study. First, like all environments, its elements interact and affect each individual and process within it. Second, a change in one area will lead to changes in others—enhancing or diminishing them, for example. Third, people often take their environments for granted; not noticing them, they do not notice their influence. Media ecology attempts to call attention to the environment created by communication.

To see how communication technology has influenced the Church, we can start with how the People of God have interacted and shared their faith. It shouldn’t surprise us to see changes in one area—communication technology—prompting changes in another—the articulation of faith; similarly, we should not find it surprising that other parts of the environment (including religious practices) trigger changes in communication. Addressing only writing, Walter Ong, S.J., memorably called attention to this pattern of interacting changes with a chapter heading, “writing restructures consciousness.” Here he traced thousands of years of the history of writing systems, using evidence from oral tales, proverbs, and epic poetry, and later novels and printed texts, to show how key elements of our thinking processes and self-consciousness changed once humans had mastered writing.


Reprinted with permission.

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