14 Feb 2022 Digital justice
By Heinrich Bedford-Strohm
If Christian faith is about bringing the gospel into dialogue with life, if we as the church have the task of reading the signs of the times, as the Second Vatican Council has told us to do, and if we can only fulfil this task ecumenically because as Paul says “Christ is not divided” (Rom 1), then we need to do exactly what we are doing today: reflect on digitization and its spiritual and ethical and political implications – and do so ecumenically.
There is no doubt that digitization is a crucial dimension of the “signs of the times”. In 1641, the French philosopher René Descartes – in his work Meditationes de prima philosophia – wrote a sentence that has been quoted many times up to this day and that stands for the age of enlightenment, “Cogito, ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am”. If we were looking for a comparable phrase for our age, a proposal made by German scholar Gesche Joost would be a good candidate, “I am online, therefore I am.”1
The broader consequences of the enormous impact of this new technology on our lives are controversial. Some see the injustice of opportunities and resources growing rapidly by digitization. Others praise the possibilities of the talented young woman from the Philippines to design T-Shirts for a company in Kansas, earn a good salary and develop her abilities without ever having set a foot on U.S. territory.
Some rejoice at the medical potential that promises individuals treatment and healing according to their unique DNA; others see a second-class medical system coming that will only allow a few rich people to enjoy and also to afford top medical treatment.
Some happily expect the development of artificial intelligence (AI) that does not just cover self-learning systems, but sooner or later a switch to a consciousness that will be superior to human beings. Others ask concerned questions about where AI development is leading and whether we are moving towards a new religion of “dataism” with extended awareness (Harari) and the classical picture of humankind doomed.
The Churches are in the thick of these discussions about what may come: some see digitization as the fulfilment of a biblical vision. You can certainly sense a little of the Pentecostal spirit blowing in the new possibilities of the digital world and its non-hierarchical communication model of all-to-all. It did seem to me like a communication miracle when I sat with some young students at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey some years ago, and a young Georgian woman showed me a translation app with which I could simultaneously read what she said in Georgian in my own German language.
Yet, there are some differences between the Pentecostal language miracle and this digital language miracle. The algorithms that govern so much of the digital world are not god-made but human-made. What appears in the digital arena does not come like fate out of nowhere – it is guided and controlled. Those responsible for this change have a phone number and an email account.
Therefore, what happens in and with the digital world needs to be subject to conscious human agency – hopefully with guidance by God’s spirit, but still as result of human agency. This is why it is so important that we come together to seek and find orientation for this agency.
Justice for all: The option for the poor as the basis for reading the signs of the times
The biblical option for the poor has become the key phrase for a characteristic of both the Old and the New Testament and which has gained wide consensus in the churches all over the world. No ideological distortion of biblical witness has ever been able to extinguish this key feature of the Bible, so prominent in its various layers. We need only recall the notion of human being as the image of God as a source of equality or the astonishing fact that the very founding story of God’s people is a story of liberation from slavery.
We may simply look at the specific character of the law of the Torah as protecting the weak and marginalized or listen to the prophets’ passionate critique of a religious cult that ignores the struggle for justice. We only have to take account of Jesus’ understanding of his mission as proclaiming the gospel to the poor (Lk 4), his critique of a wealth detached from the needs of the community, and his radical identification with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the strangers and the sick (Mt 25).
We must simply make an effort to understand the deep social, ethical implications of a God whose incarnation on earth ends as a victim of torture, and take seriously Paul’s reflection on the cross as a key to God’s action in the world (1 Cor 1). If we reflect on all this, we cannot but understand that care for the situation of the poor and disadvantaged and making every effort to improve their situation is not a special interest of some politically biased Christians influenced by radical theologians. It is a central characteristic of the Christian understanding of God and of Christian life in its personal and political dimensions.
This fundamental perspective on life must also shape our view when we read the signs of the times.
Confronting the digital divides
If the biblical option for the poor shapes our perception of reality, it directs our attention to the global divides in the face of digitization. As Henrik Simojoki has noted, discussions on global digital transformation are often characterized by “sweeping generalizations”. We speak of “the digital world” or “global digital transformation” or “the Net generation” or the much used word “digital natives”. Such generalizations suggest that participation in these digital developments is more or less general.2
The reality is that access is highly divided. Drawing on recent research Simojoki describes eight forms of digital divides: the income divide, the geographic divide, the ethnic divide, the education divide, the gender divide, the age divide, the technological divide, and the global divide.3
Use of the Internet is very different in numbers in different parts of the world. While the number of individuals using the Internet is high in the developed countries, it is – according to World Bank statistics – relatively low in less developed countries.4 In Eritrea – to give just one example – only 1.2% of the population use the Internet while the number in Germany is 88.1%.
This digital divide has different dimensions. Of course, there is the simple dimension of material resources. Who has the money to buy a smart phone or even a tablet or a laptop? How can people pay for the data they need to use their smartphone? In Uganda, people spend on average about 15% of their monthly income for 1 GB of data. Popular services like Facebook, YouTube or WhatsApp turn – with their cost increased by taxes – into a luxury good for the poor.5
There is a gender gap. In Rwanda, globally the country with the highest percentage of women in parliament, 60% more men have access to the internet than women. There is also a gap between cities and rural areas. In less developed regions, it amounts to about 80%. In Tanzania it is 84%.6
In the last few years we have seen a shift in the causes of the global digital divide. While in former times the problem was primarily the lack of digital infrastructure, this infrastructure has developed more and more worldwide. This progress, however, has increased inequality even more, because while some can use this infrastructure and participate in internet communication, others – often the majority – are excluded. Therefore, participation is not, strengthened but weakened – a phenomenon, which the Think Tank Research ICT Africa calls the “paradox of digital inequality on the African continent.”7
The consequences of these divides for the distribution of global attention, with all its effect on what is perceived as important or less important, are fundamental. Henrik Simojok describes the selectivity of perception with the example of the terrorist attack on the French journal Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015. “#JeSuisCharlie” became one of the most popular hashtags in the history of Twitter. Within 24 hours, more than 3.5 million people expressed their solidarity through this hashtag. And this can only be welcomed. Yet two days later, 2,000 people were massacred in Nigeria by Boko Haram. It was an act of incredible cruelty. However, it did not evoke an outcry in any way comparable to the one two days before.8
Connecting schools globally and digitally
Let me make the theme of digital divide and strategies against it more concrete by introducing a school-networking project which came out of the Reformation 500th anniversary celebrations and which has developed into a success story of global digital inclusion. Henrik Simojoki who – together with Annette Scheunpflug – was one of its initiators and promoters uses it as the lifeworld basis of his scholarly article on the digital divide.9
The project by the name “schools500reformation” with the internet platform “schools500reformation.net” aimed to connect Protestant schools worldwide by digitally bringing together teachers, students, school principals and administrators in education. The goal was to bring together 500 schools, but soon 660 schools were already registered. The strongest concentration of schools did not come from Europe but from countries in Central Africa like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Cameroon, and Tanzania. News was being shared; newsletters were distributed; learning materials were exchanged. An interactive forum was added where teachers and pupils from the participating schools could interact directly.
The digital divide between north and south that the project sought to bridge can be illustrated by the frequency of a school homepage. In Germany, it is standard that every school has a homepage of its own. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, from the more than 100 Protestant schools participating, only one had a homepage.
The project changed digital participation of the schools considerably. When all schools were asked to send in “Theses for the Future”, which teachers collected from students and then published globally, “Strikingly, the country that sent in the most theses was the Democratic Republic of Congo.”10
During the project, it became clear that digital exchange was not enough. Therefore, three regional conferences took place in Africa, which made face-to-face-exchange possible. And in the anniversary year, 80 principals from Protestant schools from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, Latin and North America came together in Wittenberg to exchange their experiences. I will always remember this conference as a visible experience of the one global church of Jesus Christ, connected beyond national, social, and cultural borders.
Despite the obvious success of the project, Simojoki’s conclusion is also conscious of the difficulties, “…In the so-called digital age, connecting people and bridging distances between the Global North and the Global South is still much more complicated and laborious than the popular idea of global connectivity would mislead us into believing.”11
Accessibility becomes a decisive factor
The digital divide that we have looked at on a global scale is, of course, also an issue in national societies, and even in wealthy countries. Access to the digital world has turned from one among several dimensions of societal participation into the decisive form of societal participation. Lack of participation was, therefore, detrimental to human souls. This was especially evident for older people not familiar with digital communication and, therefore, often literally isolated from their normal communities. Often enough, what was sorrow at the beginning turned into tragedy, with people even dying of loneliness.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the harsh consequences of the digital divide also hit young people in a particular way. Over many months schooling had completely to switch into digital mode. In addition to the injustices of sharply differing levels of family support in home schooling during this time, the simple technical equipment differed. In poor families, children had to compete for the tablet or laptop if there was one in the family at all. Families who did not have the digital equipment had to pay a monthly fee for borrowing it, adding to an already strained daily budget.
The consequences of this digital divide during the pandemic will only become really visible in the future. But not much imagination is needed to conclude that the injustice in educational opportunities has been aggravated during this time.
In addition to the divide in access to the internet, which we call the “digital divide”, there is also a discussion about what I would call the “digitally caused divide”. Alexander Filipovic cites research showing that there is a “double spiral effect” that increases inequality. Those with good education profit from a sophisticated use of the internet with the result of deepening their education, advancing their social position and strengthening their social capital (upward spiral), while others with low education and a precarious socio-economic starting position do not profit from internet use comparably and are therefore further left out (downward spiral).12
Countering the dynamics of divides is one of the challenges of shaping digitization responsibly.
Overcoming monopolistic structures
Digital justice is endangered also by monopolistic structures, caused by an extremely fast build-up of entrepreneurial power. The communication of billions of people is controlled by a handful of powerful companies. Google’s market share has constantly been above 90%,13 with about two trillion yearly searches. Google’s next competitor, Bing, only holds 2.5% of market share, while Yahoo accounts for only 1.5%. Noah Yuval Harari has emphasized the power that comes from this market position: “Since we increasingly use Google when we look for answers our ability resists looking for information ourselves. Already today ‘truth’ is defined by the top results of the google search.”14
The number of Facebook users has constantly increased since 2008. As of the second quarter of 2020, Facebook had almost 2.9 billion monthly active users.15 Every change in the Facebook algorithm has an impact on the communication behaviour of billions of people worldwide.
The growth in usage of AI technologies like machine-learning and deep-learning spreads the ability to sift through vast amounts of data and mine them for patterns and trends. Hence, companies sitting on a treasure trove of user data have new capabilities to use and commercialize it. That means: big data players become even more powerful. As German theologian Peter Dabrock has noted, “Large data collectors like digital platforms with a massive user base and enormous amounts of daily traffic can merge various silos of data and create new products and services with a clear advantage compared to small start-up businesses that have yet to collect data from a far smaller user base.”
This creates a “winner-takes-all” logic and makes it much harder for start-ups to join once a strong incumbent has established itself. The long-term effects, according to Dabrock, are significant, “Since this logic rewards great size we are experiencing a situation of monopolization which has never existed before in the history of economics.”16
For the famous global investor George Soros, Google and Facebook are monopolists “who cultivate addiction, menace independent thinking and make state financed surveillance of their citizens possible for dictators.”17
How to counter such monopolistic tendencies is an important topic of ethical reflections on digital justice.
Making algorithms responsible. Re-establishing democratic discourse in digital communication
The commercial logic of the digital economy and its powerful effect on personal and public communication threatens the very fabric of discourse so crucial for democratic societies. The fact that the internet is full of fake news and hate speech, full of conspiracy theories and extremist content, is no coincidence. It has a reason.
Studies say that – through their recommendations and algorithms – platforms like YouTube quickly attract users towards more extreme, even extremist content. The platforms do not assess the political content; they do not create their algorithms according to truth criteria or according to certain fundamental values, but simply according to potential advertisement revenue. If more extreme content generates the most financial revenue, the algorithms will push them, no matter how detrimental they might be to democratic culture or the promotion of human dignity.
If this is so, if algorithms really work like this, then platforms like YouTube or Facebook are the most powerful instruments in the 21st century for turning people into extremists. The fatal alliance of the extremist attitudes of some users and the economic interests of the platforms is endangering our democracies.
The exchange of argument is not the driving force but the logic of consumer preference. Algorithms serve the interest of profit not the pursuit of the common good. The consumer logic of pleasing and nudging the recipient becomes the paradigm for communication. Mutual affirmation in opinion-building in filter bubbles overtakes the sometimes quite unpleasant exchange of controversial arguments.
In his new book, Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of the digital revolution, recommends leaving the commercially driven social networks altogether, and proposes moving towards social networks which are not financed through advertising but through subscription fees. For him, this is the only way to prevent a culture of consumer idiots formed solely by commerce-driven communication culture.
A proposal which the former CEO of the German Public TV station ARD, Ulrich Wilhelm made, envisions an international publicly funded internet platform responsible not to shareholders expecting a certain financial output, but to commonly shared basic values such as the inviolability of human dignity. Such a platform could become an alternative to commercially driven internet platforms ignoring such basic moral values.
Becoming human in the digital age
When we reflect theologically upon the Christian view on digital justice, two intrinsically connected aspects must play a central role: relationality and vulnerability. What it means to be a human being can only be understood for us as Christians, if we interpret it from the humanity of Jesus. In the words of 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth, whoever “does not know and take into account from the very first place and from the very first view and word that the human being has a fellow human being, does not see him or her at all.”18
It is decisive for theological anthropology to understand how specific this Christological foundation is. It does not suffice to speak of some general humanity with some general relationality. Such humanity and such relationality are qualified. Jesus is the vulnerable human being, the tortured human being, the powerless, abused human being. Relationality, theologically understood, is therefore, always relationality from below.
That will have to be the starting point when we reflect upon this sentence, which will hopefully reach our hearts and minds as the motto on our way to the WCC’s Karlsruhe assembly in 2022: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”. Our divided world needs our contribution as Christians. It needs our public witness.
As Christians we should be online wherever it can help to move the world to reconciliation and unity. But this digital presence is not an end in itself but only an instrument. We are not saying, “I am online, therefore I am”, but “I am in Christ, therefore I am.” And – honouring our relationality – even more precisely, “We are in Christ, therefore we are.” If this is true, then it is the most powerful expression of hope for this struggling world when we repeat, “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” ν
1. Gesche Joost, No App, No Access, in: W. Beck/I. Nord/J. Valentin (eds.), Theologie und Digitalität. Ein Kompendium, Freiburg, 2021, 32-49 (37).
2. H. Simojoki, Falling Through the Net. The Digital Divide as a Challenge to Public Theology, Global Learning and Religious Education, in: M. Pirner/J. Lähnemann/W. Haussmann/S. Schwarz (eds.), Public theology. Perspectives on Religion and Education, Routledge: London/New York 2019, 199-210 (200f).
3. Joost. 203
5. Gesche Joost, No App, No Access, in: W. Beck/I. Nord/J. Valentin (eds.), Theologie und Digitalität. Ein Kompendium, Freiburg, 2021, 32-49 (42).
7. Joost, 35.
8. Simojoki, 205.
9. Simojoki, 199f.
10. Simojoki, 207.
11. Simojoki, 208.
12. A. Filipovic, Ungleichheit in der vernetzten Gesellschaft. Der Zusammenhang zwischen Internetnutzung und sozialer Ungleichheit in medienethischer Perspektive, in: Marlies Prinzing et al. (Hgg.), Neuvermessung der Medienethik. Bilanz, Themen und Herausforderungen seit 2000, Beltz Iuventa, Weinheim/Basel 2015, 206-221(215f).
14. Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lektionen für das 21. Jahrhundert, München 2018, 87. Own Translation.
16. Peter Dabrock, “Suchet der Stadt Bestes,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 9 January 2019, https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/die-gegenwart/datenschutz-und-menschenwuerde-suchet-der-stadt-bestes-15957346.html
17. Precht, 250.
18. „Wer nicht zum vornherein, vom ersten Blick und Wort an weiß und in Rechnung zieht, daß der Mensch einen Nächsten hat, der sieht ihn gar nicht“ (K. Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik III/2, Zürich 1948, (270f).
Heinrich Bedford-Strohm was born in 1960 and studied Theology in Erlangen, Heidelberg and Berkeley (USA). From 1989 to 1992 he was a teaching assistant at the Chair of Systematic Theology and Social Ethics at Heidelberg University where he earned his doctorate in 1992. In 1995 he accepted a Dietrich Bonhoeffer guest professorship for Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York. In 1998 he was granted his “habilitation” (enabling eligibility for a full professorship) at Heidelberg University. From 1999 to 2001 he had an acting professorship for Systematic Theology at Giessen University. From 2004 to 2011 he was professor of Systematic Theology and Current Theological Issues. He headed the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Research Centre for Public Theology at Giessen University from 2007 to 2011 and was also dean of the Faculty of Humanities from 2006 to 2011. He is a member of the Society for Protestant Theology and is on the board of the journal Evangelische Theologie, having been its CEO until 2011. Since 30 October 2011 Bedford-Strohm has been bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria and since 11 November 2014 chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Deutschland.
Photo: 13 September 2021, Berlin, Germany. International symposium on Social Justice in a Digital Age, co-organised by the World Council of Churches and the World Association for Christian Communication. Right: Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm. PhotoByAlbinHillert_AH2_0419.jpg