As Bishop Paul Tighe sat down for our interview, he joked that not only is he probably the only priest at South by Southwest, but also the only person with grey hair.
His presence here marks the first time the Vatican has attended the South by Southwest Interactive conference, and their panel – titled Compassionate Disruption – is one of this year’s most talked about events.
“In a world where increasingly [we’re] not invited to part of conversations, I think if people are interested in having us, we’re delighted to be here.
“I want to learn and get a feeling for what are the things that are driving a generation of people who are in many ways shaping the world as we know it.
He glanced around the room.
“Really deep down, I see a lot of people looking for some sort of connectivity.”
That’s certainly true – though I get the sense for delegates here that means good wi-fi, rather than a strong sense of faith. So Bishop Tighe’s mission is to get this industry to find real value in both.
As the Vatican’s Adjunct Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, one of Bishop Tighe’s many responsibilities is to run the social media accounts for the Pope, as well as considering ways in which the Catholic Church can stretch its influence into our digital lives.
Five years ago, Pope Benedict decided to set up a Twitter account – @Pontifex – which is continued today by Pope Francis. It was a decision the Church at the time felt was hugely symbolic.
“There’s an environment that is kinda rough,” Bishop Tighe said.
“There’s a lot of trolling, a lot of negativity.
“But if the people who want to use it for good withdraw from it, then the trolls have won. There is a potential here to build connections, to learn from people who might surprise us.”
The Bishop winced a little as I asked him whether Pope Benedict received a warm welcome on Twitter.
“There was a welcome from many, but there was a huge amount of negativity,” he said.
“There were people saying ‘let’s launch a Twitter bomb, lets force them out of this environment’. But we stuck with it and said ‘no, this is too important a forum’.”
He said the current Pope handed down a clear strategy for communicating – not preaching – on Twitter.
“When Pope Francis gave us our instructions he said ‘the one thing I want you to be above all is try to encourage people. It’s a tough world, it’s a hard world, let’s be at least encouraging’.”
Ten years ago, SXSW Interactive enjoyed what’s still its most significant moment – the “launch” of Twitter. The service had been around for a little while before appearing at the festival, but it was here that its popularity skyrocketed.
The Vatican was hesitant to get involved, unsure of how to interact with the new medium – and whether it should be there at all.
“Maybe for the Church this world has disturbed us, has disrupted a lot of our ways of forming community. It’s making us think again about how to do our business.”
Part of that business, he suggested, was in making people consider what kind of online world they want to exist in, and how to achieve it in the face of increased hostility and division. In explaining it he coined a phrase that may just resonate with his audience here.
“A few years ago, everyone was talking about User-Generated Content. But I think we also need to recover a sense of User-Generated Culture. That’s the choice of individuals.
“If you’re spending your day with a lot of negative stuff in the environment, it’s easy to imbibe that, to take that on board. But the challenge for all of us is to try and say ‘yes, I’m going to be there, but I’m not going to be conditioned by the less positive sides of that’.”
God vs Big Data
While it’s the Vatican’s first time at SXSW, it’s certainly not the first technology conference it has attended. Bishop Tighe also attended Web Summit in Lisbon last year, and there, as it is here, the hot topic was the growing power of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
I put it to him that we are living at a time when the majority of people are far more likely to search Google for answers than they are to pray. When the Amazon Alexa in the corner of my kitchen can give me immediate answers based on data, why turn anywhere else?
“All the data in the world will still leave room for choices that I have to make,” he said. “If we say big data will tell us what’s right or wrong, then I am no longer an agent, and my choices have been determined for me. That doesn’t correspond to my experience of being a human.”
More profound, he said, will be the emergence of artificial intelligence and robotics in the working environment. Money aside, he argued we should be concerned about what a lack of work could do to our sense of self worth.
“Let’s not romanticise it – some of the work that might be displaced is fairly tough, dangerous work and fairly menial. Maybe it’s no great loss.
“[But] we need to reflect on how human beings who work are not just economic units producing products, they’re people with stories and families.”
I finished by asking him whether, given the chance, he’d offer some advice to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg over how he could change the world’s largest online community for the better.
To my surprise, he didn’t want to change anything – but he made a plea for technology innovators and entrepreneurs to consider how to involve the Church and others in building their products.
“I think it’s really a time for a good, robust conversation between programmers and people who are coming form different ethical and philosophical positions.
“We must ensure that our human values and achievements, in terms of respecting dignity and the worth of people, will somehow be programmed into the machines we work with.”