Thinking holy thoughts about social media and sousveillance

Dorian Stone
Sunday 7 June 2015

A couple of years ago I was chatting with two postgrad friends of mine, one of whom was doing a PHD in biochemistry while the other was studying a Masters in Divinity. It was interesting to hear about the amount of security my scientist friend had to negotiate in order to enter the chemistry lab, with the number of swipe-access, number-coded doors being described making it sound like the building housed the crown jewels. The theologian turned to me and said, ‘Just think, in the 15th century it would have been our faculty that was under lock and key.’

The study of theology in the 21st century is fascinating, and there are constant reminders dotted around our ancient university of the fact that the subject has been taught here virtually since day one. Every day during term time, while walking to class I pass the newly erected statue of our founder, Bishop Wardlaw, in St Mary’s Quad. The scene depicts him proudly waving the Papal Bull that conferred official university status to St Andrews in 1414; an event which was marked with bonfires and ‘great celebration’. Times have certainly changed. St Andrews still attracts ecumenical leaders on quite a regular basis, but these days, bonfires and celebrations tend to mark May Dip rather than their arrival. I doubt Bishop Wardlaw spent much time imagining what his new university would look like 600 years down the road, but I would guess that if he were to take a stroll through 2015 St Andrews, he would be fairly taken aback. Not just by the modern, swipe access chemistry lab; not only by the rather dilapidated state of his old cathedral, but also (in terms of mine and the Bishop’s shared field of interest) what theology departments are talking about in this increasingly secular, multi-faith, technologically savvy age.

Unlike 1414, the Catholic Church no longer has a monopoly on what western people of faith are encouraged to think, yet its influence is still great. Each year since 1967 has seen the Vatican issue a message for World Communications Day, which articulates the Church’s position on media and communication issues. By drawing upon this official teaching, I will be examining potential theological outlooks on social media, in particular how these platforms are increasingly used to enable sousveillance. With the affordable availability of digital video and camera technology, it is easier than ever to ‘watch the watchers’, while images and anecdotes can be propagated quickly through social media. My research will hope to explore what the Church might have to say about the moral and ethical consequences of this state of affairs. While the Church’s teaching will not necessarily be authoritative for those outside the Catholic Church (of which I am one, incidentally), it is still an important contributor to the debate, since it speaks on behalf of over 1 billion people throughout the world. It also seeks to engage in constructive dialogue with any person ‘of good will’, a category which I certainly attempt to fit into.

I am both excited and nervous about taking part in the Laidlaw Internship program, and am relieved to read that others are feeling the same! It is an honour and a privilege to be selected, and I wish you all the very best in whatever field you have chosen to research.



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