Friday 13 September 2013

Digital Wealth and Poverty

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

If wealth alone then make and keep us blest,

Still, still be getting, never, never rest.
– Pope

Television as a separate medium from the internet probably does not have a future. My own habits are certainly in line with such a prediction. I don’t watch much television, but when I do, I tend to watch it online. Many programmes are now made freely available (with advertisements) by broadcasters on their websites, and I for my part generally find enough to satisfy me on the CBC. Nevertheless, I was pondering a little while ago whether I might open an account with  Netflix. It is a service I subscribed to several years ago when I was living in the United States, and I thought I got my money’s worth. In Canada you can’t get DVD’s mailed to you like down south, but I figured that there would be plenty online to keep me entertained when I needed to unwind after a long day.

In the end, however, I decided not to sign up. I suppose my primary reason was to avoid the temptation to watch too much. I already spend a lot of time in front of a screen and should be finding other ways to recreate. But another reason that weighed in was related to my vow of poverty—the aspect of Jesuit life that St. Ignatius claimed to be “the strong wall of the religious institute”. What, then, does Netflix have to do with poverty?

When we think about material poverty and wealth, we tend to think in terms of the number and quality of objects that someone has—clothes, houses, vehicles, boats, books and so on. These are all things that take up space in our houses, our offices, our back yards. However, we are less habituated to think of digital possessions in terms of wealth and poverty. After all, owning thousands of MP3’s takes up far less space than thousands of CD’s. But the fact is that MP3’s, or other digital content, can be as much owned and possessed as more ponderous goods. Moreover, material wealth consists not only in permanent possessions, but also in access to goods and services whether it be food, entertainment, fitness clubs or vacations. The same is true online. Being connected to the internet in itself offers a huge wealth of access to information, to entertainment, to business, to shopping, and so on.

The more I thought about it, then, the more it became clear to me that subscribing to something like Netflix really is an exercise in wealth. It is not that it costs much in terms of dollar figures—it actually turns out to be comparable in price to a typical magazine subscription. But it does give one access to a huge amount of video content, allowing one to be entertained anywhere there is a computer with an internet connection. It is really quite incredible what one little fee can give you.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this—as I said above, I was a happy customer for a few years. Nor do I think that signing up for Netflix or similar services would necessarily be contrary to religious poverty. Perhaps I may decide sometime in the future to open an account. But what I am saying is that we need to be aware that digital possessions really are possessions. They may not clutter up our attics, but they are part of what we own, possess and control.

As Christians, we need to be careful that we do not become attached to wealth of any form. How we use our digital wealth must increasingly become part of that discernment.

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