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Think of this as an e-mail from the pope

February 6, 2002

With so many compelling stories dominating the news, something said recently by a very bright man received little notice.

The man usually doesn't have much trouble being widely quoted. He is Pope John Paul II.

What he said the other day offers an intriguing perspective on something most of us are dealing with.

The pope decided to address the Internet — what he likes about it, and what he doesn't.

What it offers, he said, is an opportunity "to proclaim the Gospel message." He likened the Internet to such "threshold moments" as the Renaissance, the invention of printing and the Industrial Revolution.

But he quickly added that he knows there is a dark side: the Internet's ability to spread "degrading and damaging" material.

(Indeed, you would hope that someone in the Vatican screens the pope's e-mail before it reaches his eyes; if he is like many people who are unable to figure out a way to keep junk e-mail out of their mailboxes, it is possible that he feels even more of an urge to pray each morning when he checks his new mail and sees the sewage that is there. From what I hear from readers, the newest trend in unsolicited e-mail is offer after offer for depictions of . . . how to discreetly say this? . . . romantic encounters with barnyard creatures and household pets. This is jarring enough for those in the secular world; you hope the pope doesn't have to see it.)

But he very well may, if he is prompted to warn mankind about "degrading and damaging" material on their screens. Yet it was the pope's observations on a less frequently discussed area of computer life that was most thought-provoking.

He said that people who spend a lot of time on the Internet put themselves in the position of, after having stared at words and data for hours on end, thinking that facts matter more than values. The pope said:

"Understanding and wisdom are the fruit of a contemplative eye upon the world, and do not come from a mere accumulation of facts, no matter how interesting."

The point, the pope said, is that the desire for deeper thought and reflection can be diminished if people confuse the immediacy of what is on their screens with the things that are truly important in life.

He's absolutely right. One of the most depressing sights on any personal computer screen has nothing to do with sleazy material — it has to do with a number. The number changes every time you sign off, and it's only there for a moment.

It's the number in the middle of the sentence that reads:

"You have spent 48 minutes online."

Or 33 minutes. Or 74 minutes. You know the message I'm talking about.

Those minutes — those accumulated hours — are minutes and hours you have spent looking at that screen instead of looking at the real world. Not that the Internet is a bad thing — as the pope pointed out, it can be a very good thing. But — as he said — you can be fooled into half-believing that because you have been fed a limitless menu of facts, words and photos, you have nourished yourself. The pope suggests that true nourishment — in his words — can come only as "the fruit of a contemplative eye upon the world."

He may be fighting a losing battle — but if there's anyone who probably doesn't care whether the odds are against him, it has to be the pope. The Internet has become the path of least resistance in the delivery of information; it is difficult to persuade people to choose a more challenging path, no matter how rewarding. Looking out the window can do more for you than looking at a screen. At least that is what I think the pope was saying.

At about the same time he was saying it, Amtrak — in the midst of its own problems — was announcing that it has entered into a deal with Yahoo! Inc. and Compaq to provide passengers with handheld devices on which to surf the Internet on certain routes.

If that catches on, people may stop looking out the windows even on train rides — one of the best and most invaluable times to gaze out the window and think. And you sense that even the pope will not be able to convince the train riders that they should flip their computer screens down.

- Bob Greene comments on the news of the day Thursdays on the "WGN News at Nine."

By Bob Greene. Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune


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