Promoting peace through social media

Academic and Sikh activist Gurnam Singh was one of the presenters at the historic conference hosted by the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland, on 5 July 2019. It commemorates the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. Here is a transcript of his speech on ‘Promoting Peace through Social Media’.

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By Gurnam Singh | UK | OPINION |

Bishop, Friends and distinguished colleagues, I am honored to be addressing todays historic gathering. My topic is promoting peace through arts and social media, which is vast subject. There is a Panjabi saying that captures the challenge which I am facing, which is samunder nu kuujay vich pauna, or putting the whole ocean into a pot. I will mostly focus my talk on the impact modern information technology, specifically social media and the internet, and the place of faith.

Let me begin by taking you back to ancient Greece and The Phaedrus, a book written by Plato around 370BC. Though seemingly about the topic of love, it includes a very inciteful dialogue between Socrates and the protagonist Phaedrus (Plato) about the virtues of the then relatively new technology of writing. Socrates, who never wrote a word in his life, offers a defense of the oral tradition, whereas Plato makes the case for writing.

Plato opens up the argument by claiming that – writing can enable us to record our thoughts.

Socrates – but it will mean we lose our memories.
Plato – writing can enable many more people access to ideas
Socrates – But it means we will stop talking to each other face to face.
Plato – Writing will enable future generations to have access to our ideas.
Socrates – But due to incompetence or malice, the written record may distort historical truth.

And so, the debate continues… The general conclusion one can draw from this dialogue is that new technologies, such as writing then and today the internet, have their advantages and disadvantages. Occasionally technology can be disruptive to such an extent that we almost see a paradigm shift taking place; the advent of the nuclear bomb is one such example.

The internet was initially established by the US military in 1980’s as a secure communications system capable for operating in server conditions, including a nuclear conflict.  It has since in a matter of 35 years morphed into a global system of interconnected computer networks that has literally connected people and machines across the world.

It has radically and irreversibly changed the way we work, play, learn, travel, consume, communicate and engage with each other. The speed of technological development is breathtaking and only the brave would venture to predict where it might end.

Though we have uneven access and download speeds, which can have a big impact, still 70% of the world’s population or 4.6 billion own a smartphone and a similar number have access to the internet, with developing countries in Africa and Asia rapidly catching up (Source www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm)

Through apps such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube Email and WhatsApp messages we can literally and instantly in real time share our lives with millions of people across our planet. Increasingly we are living in two parallel worlds, one is a disembodied online virtual world; the other in our physical bodies.

In today’s Western secular society, Science and technology are considered to be the ‘saviors’ of the modern age, whereas faith is often seen to be anachronistic. The contemporary dogma states that science represents the new truth, faith superstitions, irrationality and the lack of public services.

There is no doubt that the hegemony of religious institutions like the church has been seriously challenged but I pose the question, has the internet led us closer or further away from the truth? And has the immense power of the world wide web brought human beings closer together or just made it much easier to spread hate and disinformation about the Other.

Guru Nanak talks about a world in which there is ‘no enemy, no stranger, where we are all united as one human race’

Certainly, social media has opened up infinite opportunities to become connected, but what is the nature of these connections?

By shifting our focus from connecting with people, our loved ones, our neighbors and work colleagues in the flesh, to the virtual world, are we in effect ‘disconnecting’, and does the lack of physical proximity, where a real smile or handshake is replaced by an emoji bring us closer together or divide us apart? Do social media apps such as Snapchat, twitter and Facebook really help us to build our social skills, self-esteem and personality or do they simply turn us into instant gratification junkies looking for a quick fix that comes from receiving a ‘like’ from a so-called ‘friend’?

Faith and science and technology for some are seen as uncomfortable bedfellows. But the truth is, despite having different philosophical starting points, in reality, faith has played a key role in the propagation and development of science. Indeed, arguably, had it not been for the reformation and the protestant ethic, scientific progress leading to the creation of the amazing information technologies of our age many never have materialised.

Many of our great universities where amazing scientific discoveries have and are taking place are deeply rooted in faith traditions, so I can safely confirm God has no problem with technology. Just this morning I did a Google search for God and it gave me 3 billion hits in less than half a second. Perhaps God lives in the internet!!

Indeed, developments in artificial intelligence and the seemingly exponential increase in processing speeds is leading to all kinds of new possibilities as we enter the age of Artificial Intelligence and what is termed the ‘web of all things’, where gadgets, devices and natural world become completely integrated.

Some writers talk about the emergence of a ‘post human’ world where technology and biology will merge, the implications of which are yet to be comprehended, but let me leave you with one troubling though, if it became possible to download the contents our brains onto the web, would it make any sense, particularly given the damage humans have caused to the natural world, to keep our bodies?

No doubt similar ethical and moral questions will keep faith and secular leaders busy for some time.

I began my talk by highlighting the advantages and disadvantages of a previous technological development, namely, writing. Without the written word, today we would not know of the bible or the Guru Granth Sahib. Would our lives be better or worse without writing, one can only speculate?

No doubt social media and the internet are extremely disruptive technologies, and the term ‘disruptive’ has both positive and negative connotations.

Unlike previous generations, the children and young people of today have no experience of life without social media; for them it is as natural as what playing in the streets was to my generation; the obvious difference being, though such things as computer games, they are playing and living their lives in virtual worlds. Though ‘virtual’ social media is not without dangers. A report published this week by the children’s charity Barnados said children under 5 are becoming addicted to social media and cyberbullying was a serious issue.

  • Whilst recognizing that there are many positive aspects of social media, entitled ‘Left to their Own Devices’, there is real concern about the impact of social media on children’s mental health:
  • some children start looking at social media as early as two-years-old.
    children aged five to 10 who had been exposed to unsuitable or harmful materials online,
  • and the majority of children have been victims of cyberbullying and for the 16+ age group this has for some led to self-harm and suicide attempts.

That said, who can deny the amazing power of the internet to deliver education and learning, what can be more revolutionary than making the whole of the collective knowledge of mankind be freely available to all human beings!

No doubt the new technological age will continue to pose challenges to the claims and relevance of religion and faith.

Karl Marx the father of communism, who declared ‘religion as the opium of the masses once said, “If God manifests in the research institute, then only shall I believe in His existence.”

There is an increasing misplaced belief amongst some that, in the world today, that the ideas of “faith” are blind and that “faith” is equivalent to ” being blind”. Yet, they fail to consider that Nanak was vehemently opposed to challenge blind faith and false rituals. But at the same time, surely, we cannot then place blind faith in science and technology.
It was against the atrocities committed in 1930’s and 40’s associated with the inhumane science of Eugenics, thankfully, we now have national and international structures to examine the ethical challenges posed by Science, be it in the form of medical or technological advances, and in recent times new social media.

As science and technology push back the frontiers of the known universe and even is now capable of manipulating nature itself – e.g. genetic editing – we must not forget that there are some aspects of the mystery of life that are beyond the realms of science and logic?

As Guru Nanak Dev, in his composition Japji Sahib.

“So many worlds beyond this world ó so very many!
What power holds them, and supports their weight?
The names and the colors of the assorted species of beings were all inscribed by the Ever-flowing Pen of God. Who knows how to write this account? Just imagine what a huge scroll it would take! What fascinating beauty! And what gifts!
Who can know their extent? You created the vast expanse of the Universe with One Word! Hundreds of thousands of rivers began to flow. How can Your Creative Potency be described?” (Guru Nanak Dev, Japji Sahib)

Social media is in some senses a very simple thing, it is a tool, a medium for communicating and sharing, so ultimately the responsibility falls back on us as to how we use it.

How we speak and what we write?

On how to speak, Arjan, the 5th Nanak Says– Mitt bolra ji har sajan swami mera
“S\he who speaks with a sweet voice is my true friend and lord.”

Writing Baba Farid a 13th Century Panjabi Suffi Saint– Farida “jey to akal latif kalay likh na lekh”.

“If indeed you are indeed a wise person, you will refrain from writing malicious words towards others”

Thank you for listening and sat sri akaal.

 

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[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is a Visiting Fellow in Race and Education at University of Arts London and a Visiting Professor of Social Work at University of Chester as well as a presenter at UK-based Akaal channel. This views were shared on his Facebook page]

 

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