Book of the Week: Digital Virtues (2): The Catholic Church, Technology, and Free Software

On the occasion of the congress on free software and education, organized by the Salesian teaching order in Quito, Ecuador, Father Julian Fox, author of this book on Digital Virtues, also gave a very interesting presentation, part of which we reproduce here.

It’s theme is what an institution like the Catholic Church, can do for digital society.

The official title was: Rights and equity in the democratic construction of knowledge

The fuller version is here.

The lecture is addressed to educators and policy makers.

Father Julian Fox:

Part One: Introduction

Catholic Social Teaching, principles of social justice

“My watch has an analog display, not a digital one. I prefer it that way. Each hand on the watch shows the present moment by relating that to the past and the yet to come. A digital display merely shows a momentary second which is then relentlessly replaced by the next. Analogy is the idea that what matters is relationship, connectedness, and context: A is to B, as C is to D. The Church makes its analog contribution by enhancing local communities where relationships can flourish, by making massive contributions to the common good by acts of charity and solidarity, by contributing to the common good with insights from this action and from long tradition, and finally by endowing society with beauty through artistic creation, literature. It has much to offer.

The Church’s Social Teaching offers us firm and solid principles for this discussion on the democratic construction of knowledge.

Let me list the points first, then take them for further consideration.

Essentially, there are four clear principles in Catholic Social Teaching that I would like to tie in with certain information and knowledge issues in our digital world:

* the dignity of the human person – something intrinsic to each human being

* the common good – the social conditions for our self-realisation, individual and collective. It is a good, not an evil, it is not automatic, it is superior to special groups and not just the sum of them all, and its interest is in the whole person.

* solidarity – the virtue permitting us to share

* subsidiarity – the coordination of activities of society

Human dignity.

As stated by WSIS in Geneva in 2003 ‘Communication rights are intrinsically bound up with the human condition and are based on a new, more powerful understanding of the implications of human rights and the role of communications. Without communication rights, human beings cannot live in freedom, justice, peace and dignity’. Recently I was teaching some young African White Father missionaries working in Tunisia. One of them pointed out to me that it is of little use speaking of the various freedoms expressed in the 1948 Human Rights Charter in the Tunisian context when the most basic right to communicate is interfered with at every level, including a certain level of fear.

Communication rights are a crucial element in enabling societies and communities to tackle injustice and inequality and to forge new and better ways of organizing just social relationships where sharing becomes a norm. Intellectual property rights, knowledge-sharing and pluralism are communication rights issues, once we have tackled the most important basic elements such as the ‘freedoms’ of article 19 of the Universal declaration of Human Rights, and the ‘fears’ that human individuals and groups cultivate in myriad forms to oppress their fellow kind. [There is still dispute about whether communication rights are individual or collective. Perhaps if we use the idea more as a framing tactic, keep it broad and undefined, it has power too.]

A basic reference for Catholic Social Teaching is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (available on the Vatican website) by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. It was published in hard copy in 2004.

In it we find a section on human rights and the following statement:

– The movement towards the identification and proclamation of human rights is one of the most significant attempts to respond effectively to the inescapable demands of human dignity[302]. The Church sees in these rights the extraordinary opportunity that our modern times offer, through the affirmation of these rights, for more effectively recognizing human dignity and universally promoting it as a characteristic inscribed by God the Creator in his creature. The Church’s Magisterium has not failed to note the positive value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948, which Pope John Paul II defined as “a true milestone on the path of humanity’s moral progress”.

It is, then, in the context of human dignity and in the language of human rights, that we can and should develop our thinking on the democratization of human knowledge. Even though some of the players in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights were no longer believers, the reality is that the language of human rights is underpinned by a Christian anthropology.

This is its historical basis. The already quoted Compendium is quite explicit about this at one point:

– The social and political involvement of the lay faithful in the area of culture moves today in specific directions. The first is that of seeking to guarantee the right of each person to a human and civil culture “in harmony with the dignity of the human person, without distinction of race, sex, nation, religion, or social circumstances”[1168]. This right implies the right of families and persons to free and open schools; freedom of access to the means of social communication together with the avoidance of all forms of monopolies and ideological control of this field [my emphasis]; freedom of research, sharing one’s thoughts, debate and discussion. At the root of the poverty of so many peoples are also various forms of cultural deprivation and the failure to recognize cultural rights. The commitment to the education and formation of the person has always represented the first concern of Christian social action.

Amongst other things, you can see here another clear principle of Catholic Social Teaching emerge – the preferential option for the poor.

The common good

I wish to ally this concept with what, in the world of knowledge and information these days is called the ‘digital commons’. They are not the same thing of course. John XXII, in Mater et Magistra, famously described the common good as ‘those social conditions which favor the full development of human personality‘ [n. 65].

So it’s not a thing but a set of conditions.

And as for the Commons:

The commons is a place where the entire community of creation is energized, rather than impoverished or exploited. Truly, the commons exists for the common good, providing common goods for the benefit of the world.

The commons thrives when there exists an atmosphere of “common sense” nurtured by education, formation, and beauty…realities that are best sustained by diverse cultures and vibrant arts. When these wellsprings of education and arts are flourishing, there is a firm basis for an economy and an ecology of sustainability. At its most authentic level, the commons appears as an ongoing conversation, and an invitation to conversion. The commons can be neither established nor maintained by special interest groups, but only by “common interest” and its subsequent partners: sacrifice and humility. The law of the commons is generativity, not greed, and the fundamental actions in the commons are based on dominion and not domination…on home-building and husbandry that preserve the world of being. …

The issue of a global commons and free flow of information is crucial. I prefer, then, when speaking of Software Libre, to use a complete term, FLOSS-C, where ‘C’ stands for ‘Commons’.

Solidarity and subsidiarity

Solidarity recognizes the inequality of our gifts, abilities, tasks and responsibilities. But it is not a sterile thing! It is a complete anthropology which says, to try to put it in the simplest of terms, that a fundamental dimension of human existence is co-existence. You only have to read Gaudium et Spes to see a detailed presentation of this anthropology. The term ‘solidarity’ is common to both religious and secular discourse, as is ‘subsidiarity’, but John Paul II left us in no doubt that he thought solidarity to be a Christian virtue. Subsidiarity, if we accept the Christian underpinnings of solidarity, is not about maximizing individual autonomy, or simply the devolution of government authority, but is a framework for ordering society which allows solidarity’s vision of the human person to be realized.

There is one aspect of the principle of subsidiarity that can particularly interest us in the current discussion on the democratic construction of knowledge. It is a point made recently by the Archbishop of Dijon, Roland Minnerath, outlining elements of Catholic Social Teaching principles for the May 2008 meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

Firstly he says that we should add the principle of participation to that of subsidiarity:

Participation is the expression of the equal dignity of persons and their common vocation to take in hand the matters that concern them. The principle of participation, like the principle of subsidiarity, is the translation into organisational terms of the four conditions for realising the common good (liberty, truth, justice, solidarity).

And then in a section on the relationship between solidarity and subsidiarity he says:

Subsidiarity is not obtained through decentralisation, which is a concession from the higher level of organisation, but by an appeal from the lower level to the higher levels of social organisation

We see here the right of ordinary members and groups of human society to play their part and indeed to initiate things with regard to the society in which they live.

Technology – the missing link

Of course I believe that Catholic Social Teaching provides us with some solid principles to work with. But I also see something it does not do. In Digital Virtues, I talk about ‘software’ as the missing link in the Church’s language. I would like to extend that idea. Not just software, but the whole field of technology!

There is an acknowledgment in Church teaching that technology is our context, that it is of moral concern, that it is involved in the common good, but nowhere is there sufficient guidance for us to make technology a true servant of the common good, unless it is possible to extract this from 25 or more years of Papal teaching, mostly John Paul II’s as represented in World Communication Day messages and Encyclicals. Technology is conceived of as a clear trend in human history, with social structures reacting to it. But technology is made by humans and humans therefore hold responsibility, personally and institutionally. There needs to be a proper theory of technology based on Christian principles. The best we have is a kind of reactive theory, after technological developments have begun to affect us. We need a more proactive theory of technology. As we will see shortly, the marketplace is being fundamentally altered by technology – think of the internet, Wikipedia, Software Libre, networks on the one hand, and Intellectual Property issues deeply mired in the interests and activities of the major IT Corporations on the other.

Catholic Social Teaching recognizes technology as pervasive. At the moment, however, it goes little further. I cannot claim that Digital Virtues is anywhere near the level of CST, but I can claim that there is almost nothing of its kind in print. We need many more examples of efforts to apply our Catholic belief and tradition to technology.{present on slide} Now is not the time to develop this, but let me simply give you a list of what Daniel Lynch regards as elements of Catholic thought that should be included and extended.

You will see that they touch on many of the items I have already spoken of. Is this a task for one of our Universities?

* A Catholic Anthropology – man as social, historical, fallen creature with intrinsic dignity, God-authored and God-seeking

* Social institutions as earthly facilitators of personal development; historical constructions with a transcendental goal

* The burden on humans to construct societies which are good – the common good – which is historically contingent, never complete or perfect, but necessarily oriented to the elevation of persons if it is to be authentically “good”.

* The Gospel imperatives in the Last Judgement (Mt.) and the Second Great Commandment – enduring social imperatives to be played out in history

* The “Apostolate of a Trained Laity” as earthly implementers of the common good.

Within this construction we will have to develop some foundational ideas. Necessary elements of a response include:

* a new vocabulary which allows us to speak and reason more cogently
* an acceptance of new forms of “governance” in the “new” vacuum of authority
* a new sense of institutional ethics to order our actions within same
* a public theology to convert ethics into authentic human norms. Is there truth to be found in ethical assertions? Or any standard of truth? Or, are we just exploring complexity? developing arbitrary consensus?
* a theoretical approach to corporate and government priorities; relation of people, professions, and communities of faith to those institutions; understanding of the global marketplace as a social institution.
* a reinvigorated notion of the Common Good as the object of social constructions, and the proper role of technology in same.
* Some specific interpretation of the Apostolate of the trained laity in terms of technology; in particular, the professional obligation of engineering.

I would like to add a dot point to this list – the application of Catholic Social principles to the movements for Software Libre and Open Source, and a comment on the anthropology issue: for so long in human history mankind has been structured around the notion of ownership – of land, goods. Personal ownership of property has been the measure of the person in society, certainly since the time of the ancient Greeks – and possibly long before that. Now things have shifted – access relationships as experienced in social networking, on the Web, are what matters. This is likely to be producing a very different kind of human being. We need to think about that.

Part 2 Tackling the issues

Knowledge and information

However, with the existing solid social principles established we can now tackle some of the issues we face. These principles help us to be clearer about the terms we are using. ‘Democratization’ for example. It does not mean only more access, more receivers, ever-expanding messages. Democracy involves rules which allow us to live together peacefully, and it also means a form of government that permits the full development of the human person. Because democracy is always fueled by vigorous exchange of ideas, it needs spaces where citizens can meet as equals. It is in such a context as this that we can talk about ‘knowledge spaces’, ‘commons’, ‘virtual agora’, which exist not to make decisions but to produce a mechanism of collective participation.

We can be clearer about what knowledge is. It is a human act. Only human beings know. Computers, networks and software are tools but they can never know something. [However, networks and relationships, especially community networks, are crucial – one of the key questions and challenges for a community is who owns knowledge and who can distribute it. It is a very important question and one we should be interested in]. You see, the dominant knowledge discourse is technocratic. There have been interesting studies made by two Australian researchers, on the basis of discourse analysis of a huge corpus of public policy documents – a corpus of 1.3 million words. They conclude that there is “a propensity in policy for resorting to technocratic, instrumentalist and anti-intellectual views of knowledge in policy”. They argue that “what underpins these patterns is a commodity-based conceptualization of knowledge, which is underpinned by an axiology of narrowly economic imperatives at odds with the very nature of knowledge. The commodity view of knowledge, therefore, is flawed in its ignorance of the social systemic properties of ‘knowing’.

You see, if we don’t question the kind of discourse about knowledge that is all around us in the digital world, we fall into a serious trap. International law today assumes that knowledge is a commodity. Here is a classic hint of that from the director of IT Policy and Law, Cornell University (Tracy Mitano). Webinar: Is Information and Knowledge Becoming a Commodity that Higher Education Cannot Afford? When information and knowledge are commodities, they go onto the market. They can be sold, locked up, become items of exchange. I guess the issue is this, put simply. If I know something and tell you about it, I cannot say that I know it less. I have not lost something! In fact, the more knowledge is given away, the more it increases. On the other hand, if I have a commodity and give you some, then I have less. Knowledge and information, unfortunately, are changed into a commodity by valuing them not in themselves, intrinsically, but as instruments for something else. Instrumentally valued knowledge can be made into a commodity through secrecy or monopoly, both of which make it scarce. We commodify knowledge in many ways – by pegging it to some medium of exchange, perhaps – certificates and diplomas. Another way, and this is quite devilish when you think about it, is by creating a pseudo-scarcity of knowledge. This is done via an Intellectual Property regime which includes Copyright, Patents and Trademarks. The WTO and TRIPS agreements are really an effort to globalize a US approach to IP where information is simply another commodity and information technology (think software) is the gateway to the control of information. One suspects that the US Supreme Court, when it redefines property rights, does so in favour of the big IT Corporations.

Knowledge versus information

We also need to carefully distinguish knowledge from information. Put it this way. My computer already has 250 Gigabytes of storage. That is immense. With 1,000 Gb a human being could store everything he has ever read, every movie or TV show he’d ever watched. 1,000 Gb is eminently achievable in technical terms. With so much information potentially and even really available, how can we ensure that we can use it intelligently and wisely. As John Seely Brown puts it: “We need to pay very close attention to the distinction between information and knowledge because it gets to the heart of what it means to be literate in an age where we are flooded with information”. Incidentally, Seely Brown goes on to talk about learning environments which enculturate into a practice as the way forward for ongoing learning and identifies Linux and Open Source as an excellent example of this. For one like myself who claims to have never been to a computer class in his life I can support this notion one hundred percent!

A Salesian addition

As a Salesian I would be interested in extending backwards just a little the decade usually chosen as the beginning of Catholic Social Teaching as a body of formulated teaching. Instead of the 1890’s could we go back a little further to 1847 when Don Bosco wrote his Giovane provveduto and included reference to the phrase he developed from then on until his death as an expression of his mission: to make of poor and at-risk young people buoni cristiani e onesti cittadini (good Christians and upright citizens). It was a phrase he then re-formulated after 1875 and the first missionary expedition to the Americas as civiltà e religione (civilization and religion) or bene dell’umanità e della religione (for the good of humanity and religion). As Peter Braido, the Don Bosco scholar explains it, it was a unique educational manifest with a traditional flavour but virtually open to the new. When you begin to read such discourses as that of Habermas in Istanbul on ‘Dialogues on Civilizations’, you see how open to the new Don Bosco indeed was! He had an idea of good citizenship requiring a lively sense of participation, involving rights and duties, freedom of religion, active religion, active civic engagement that may have begun in Risorgimento Italy, but which he extended to the entire world in actions and formulae that could translate into any culture in any time as has been clearly demonstrated over 150 years. But he came at things, in the true tradition of Catholic Social Teaching as we now know it, from the point of view of the poor and excluded who were, for him, certain groups of young people in particular. For anyone within the Salesian tradition, this becomes a powerful motivating programme which we need to bring to some of the most difficult issues of our time as they affect education, and this includes those already mentioned, plus others I will now add, to do with rights, equity and the democratic construction of knowledge.

Incidentally, I feel I have every right to extend the CST period backwards to Don Bosco, since that period is normally thought to have begun with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. The very same Leo XIII, who became Pope before Don Bosco died, held audience with the Saint on 9 May 1884 where he told him – and this is the important link, I think: “You [Salesians] have the mission to let the world see that it is possible to be a good Catholic and at the same time a good and upright citizen; that one can do much good for poor and abandoned youth in every age without going against the development of politics and remaining at the same time good Catholics”. It is a challenge I hope we have never forgotten.

The changed world of information

One of the great works on the information age, sometimes hailed almost ecstatically though possibly prematurely as a classic of the 21st century in the making is Manuel Castells’ trilogy on the topic:

We live in a new world of information, Castells suggests, where networks replace hierarchical relationships. Work changes nature, processes of production and exchange expand spatially and notions of authorship alter. It is a world, he indicates, where if you are in the network you can share and over time increase your chances in life. If you are out of the network or switched off then your chances diminish since everything that counts is organised around a world wide web of interacting networks.

In a later book written in 2001, Castells makes this comment:

One might say, ‘Why don’t you leave me alone? I want no part of your Internet, of your technological civilization, of your network society. I just want to live my life.’ …If this is your position, I have bad news for you. If you do not care about the networks, the networks will care about you, anyway. For as long as you want to live in this society, at this time and in this place, you will have to deal with the network society.

Some people might choose to hide from the information age, but many others left in the dark spaces between the networks have no choice. They are excluded by the harsh logic of the information economy, in which they create no economic value. These are the ones, especially the young ones amongst them, we are interested in.

The Software Libre world

Open source, open content, software libre, a new culture of sharing, networked opportunities, non-market relations of production, new ideas in Intellectual Property management through GPL, Creative Commons. These are the kinds of realities we have been dealing with over these days.

I have no easy answers for the many serious issues that have been raised. I have only my own experience to bring to the questions. My Salesian experience on the one hand, which many of us share, and this includes experience as an educator, and my experience as an intelligent user of software. I believe in and use FLOSS in a passionate and hopefully principled way. I think it has the potential to make a difference – and in my case it is making a difference.

FLOSS helps bypass some of the limits imposed by the IP regime. It is easy to adapt to various needs. I can demonstrate a classic instance of this with my adaptation of Greenstone Digital Library software to the needs of the Salesian Society. FLOSS is a positive form of globalisation, where people can make their own free contribution.

I believe that one of the the crucial issues around the world, including in developing nations, is not so much that of access to technology. FLOSS can make that a possibility in many instances. A crucial issue is the way non-FLOSS approaches (the proprietary approach) force people to be dependent, passive users and not equal participants. The developed nations’ dominance of information technology patents (software and hardware) and the way this is wrapped up by Intellectual Property rights forces this situation on many other parts of the world. The digital divide may not be so much about access to the box but the ability to know and use the language the box works in – I mean the source code in the first instance, since if there is no access to it, then people are definitely reduced in a deep way to ‘read-only’ or to not even be able to read at all! I also mean that when software patents are owned ‘overseas’, there is little incentive for locals But unfortunately, I also mean that the technocratic world is dominated by English.

I would keep a close eye on the laudatory efforts of many individuals and groups to develop FLOSS options, but would counsel great care in any relationship with dominant social forces. Is it true that the OLPC will accept a Microsoft deal? Is the IBM/Linux partnership to be thoroughly trusted? A dose of healthy skepticism is always in order. Let’s keep FLOSS subversive in the best sense of that word!…..

Moving to concrete action

But let me return to a theme I have already raised and rapidly draw this to some practical conclusions. In Digital Virtues, I suggested that we need to revisit and reinterpret some of the classic slogans of the Salesian tradition. Already in this address I have spoken in these terms of Don Bosco’s ‘good Christian and upright citizen’ as something to be re-interpreted in the light of Catholic Social Teaching and the dominance of technology, the digital, in our lives.

I hope that my efforts to tie all this in with an anthropological and theological stance can be seen as part of this re-interpretation. On 23rd April 2007, Fr Pascual Chávez, Rector Major of the Salesian Family, received a Doctorate Honoris Causa in Genova. In his Lectio Magistralis on that occasion, entitled ‘Education and Citizenship’, he made a number of comments that are relevant to what I have been saying today.

Several of his fundamental guidelines for education have resonance here,

for example:

1. The need to redefine the objectives of education, bearing in mind that 2,000 years of classical and Christian education offer an ever valid response: “the aim of education is the formation of a spirit capable of freely making judgements and becoming a responsible part of society”.

2. The need to follow a delicate balance between personal formation of the student and his or her encyclopedic information. Knowing is far more important than simply amassing information since only knowing can lead to moral responsibility and wisdom.

3. Education today means teaching people to educate themselves on an ongoing basis. In his address he spoke of the educational space that Don Bosco created and his belief that this required the greatest involvement of people, be they clearly Catholic or people of good will – today he would speak of a network of positive forces.

Every one of these points made by the Rector Major is relevant to our discussion of rights, equity and the democratic construction of knowledge today in a pedagogical context.

But I suspect there is something that needs to be added. Part of the problem is that while there is a solid and valid 2,000 year tradition of classical and Christian education, this in itself does not ensure that our theory and practice of education (that is, of knowledge and learning) is fully meeting the challenge presented by the context and characteristics of knowledge in society today. There is the danger that we are preparing learners for a society that no longer exists. The point is already there in Fr Chávez’ 2nd point about ‘knowing being more important than simply amassing information’, but it needs to be developed. Hence the discussion of the ‘democratic construction of knowledge’ is timely, since this is the kind of context where networks, connections, making sense between fields, ideas, concepts, choosing what to learn and knowing the difference between the important and the unimportant are all a crucial part of an ecology of knowing and learning.

It is not all the discovery of the technological world. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is an African proverb, and it holds a similar truth. It’s just that we have not yet fully realised this truth in many of our educational settings, nor have we become fully aware of how the ‘global village’ is busy raising our children via the Web.

Part Three: Conclusion

To-do list

I want to leave us with a ‘to-do’ list. Tasks that are pending and without which we will not be able to contribute as effectively to society as we could, nor even respond adequately to the responsibilities we have as educators today. It is potentially a long and demanding list, of course!

* ‘Communication through shared knowledge ….collaboration among people at work and at home’ was Tim Berners Lee’s vision for the World Wide Web he created. How can we make this vision more real for our own use of the Web as an international Family involved in education of the young and the poor?

* We are called to challenge practices, policies, technologies that disenfranchise individuals and communities, as well as assist in the liberation of communities and peoples.

* The main Christian alliance for communication, one which to me seems sufficiently broadly-based and solidly principled, is known as the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC). It starts from asserting the basic right to communication and offers a set of principles. Could we subscribe to that statement of principles?

* Where do we personally and communally stand on the matter of FLOSS?

* If technology and software are ‘missing links’ in Catholic Social Teaching, then it requires study and research to remedy this

* Action must follow convictions – do we have policies, statements of institutional ethics in this regard?

* ‘If you are in the network you can share and over time increase your chances in life’ (Castells) – surely this is motivation for concrete Salesian action on behalf of the young who are in situations of either being ‘locked out’ or ‘switched off’.

* ‘Learning environments which enculturate into a practice’ (Seely Brown).

What more can we do as an international community of educators in the Salesian tradition to cultivate communities of practice where Software Libre is concerned, and learning networks that foster civic engagement, and ensure open access and accessibility?

* We are part of what is known as the Third Sector, the cultural sector, volunteer sector if you like. This sector is of crucial importance in the matter of the democratic construction of knowledge. In fact the First Sector (the Market) and the Second Sector (Government) depend on a strong Third Sector. The 1998 UNESCO World Culture Report put it this way:

The cultural values which identify and link local, regional or national communities seem in danger of being overwhelmed by the relentless forces of the global marketplace. In these circumstances, questions are raised as to how societies can manage the impacts of globalization such that local or national cultures, and the creativity that sustains them, are not damaged but rather are preserved or enhanced.

What can we do to help make the Third Sector more of a coherent, self-aware force for good (Don Bosco’s idea of a vast movement) in local areas, especially poorer areas, that takes account of the opportunities offered by digital networks, Software Libre and Open Source approaches?

* The emergence of a knowledge commons offers new models of sharing information, stimulating innovation. We have many possibilities open to us: digital libraries, open courseware….. can we add to the list?

* If Software Libre is so useful and important, why is it that not everyone is using it? Amongst the answers (and by implication amongst things we can contribute to) are the following:

* lack of awareness
* lack of qualified teachers to train in tools and concepts
* lack of quality educational materials about Software Libre”

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