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Cultivating the Real World over our own Digital Space.

August 11th, 2020 (Originally written August 7th, 2017)

Perhaps this is ironic coming from a website that hosts a guide on how to get a Retro GUI for your computer, but I still hold the sentiments, if to do nothing but criticize my own failures.

The late Pope Saint John Paul II, arguably the first global Pope, spent a good portion of his papacy talking about "the Dignity of Work." In his 1988 encyclical Laborem Exercens, Saint JPII makes the point that work is exclusive to mankind. This ability work separates us from animals, because, for one of many reasons, we are able to cultivate the Earth around us and orient it to the greater Good, and reflect the creation of God.

"Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish[es] man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature."

When we think of things that are cultivated in society, we generally think of lush gardens, well-pruned rose bushes, and gardens free of invasive ivy and weeds. Gardens are easy to visualize: The roses that give off a romantic air. The tall trees that give shade from the heat. The basil plants that lend themselves to good food. There is a special joy for all of creation when an individual invests their labors to cultivate a garden. From the bees that jump from flower to flower and pollinate, to the birds that create nests in the high trees, to the person who sits in awe, relaxing on the green grass and taking in the beauty of the creation of God. Perhaps it is only apt that God himself would create a garden for us to initially live in.

Genesis 2:15 "The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it."

But gardens are not the only thing that man can cultivate. This dignity of work that man has embedded into his soul spreads deep into all kinds of other creations. From the floor plans of architects, to the caring mother that fixes beautiful paintings straightly onto the wall of a home, the idea of cultivation is seen throughout daily life. A man in a woodworking shop, or a woman in a garden, after their work is finished, can breathe in, marvel at the creation their work brought forth,  and enjoy it with the rest of God's living creatures.

So in a world whose happenings are increasingly taking place in a digital space, it only feels natural that we have the inclination to take this same attitude towards the digital realm. We want to make our mark in the space where our interactions and daily happenings our occurring. Today, one cultivates their digital space by choosing from different Operating systems, wallpapers, fonts, icon sizes, themes, browsers, phone apps, computer programs, ringtones, mail clients, router settings, social media platforms, and so on. I could go on forever on the amount of choices that one person has with the setup of their digital devices. There is a desire to make your start screen organized, visible, and pleasing. To have all of your MP3 song files tagged correctly. To have your icons neatly organized into subfolders. The ultimate user experience, cultivated to one person: You.

This you, however, remains singular. Rather than a space where all of creation can enjoy, the digital realm enclosed within the confines of the screen are seen and enjoyed by only one person: The User.
This user, after purchasing his device, is given total control over his domain. A domain where there is no consequence, no other creations to influence, and no outward sign or effect of the cultivation, brings forth a complete exercise in narcissism

Initially, our generic individual pours through menus upon menus of settings to tinker with out of genuine curiosity. Soon, he beings to change settings attuned to his own self-gratification, and as each setting is fixed to his content and stacked up, the porridge of Goldilocks continuing bowls gets sweeter and sweeter, and the allure of testing each new one attracts the user. Time continues to roll by, in the meantime creating a seemingly-perfect "world" (I say that in the loosest term possible) for the individual to get lost in. Soon, swallowed up by his own creation, he becomes a man isolated, left to fiddle with his creations, without any interaction with the real world that God created for us to enjoy. It is a tragedy like no other, for not only does the man spend his work cultivating something that does not exist, he loses the sight of his fellow man in the process. And the tech titans: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, have successfully bought the man's soul, sucking them into their ecosystem fraught with branding, stacked in a way that is nearly impossible for man to escape. For his data is sold to cloud services, proprietary platforms that make it difficult to move from one place to another. He as a consumer, initially tempted by the promises of endless entertainment, has found himself in chains to the services of a major corporation.

Let's draw back from a generation buried in their smartphones to adhere to the words of John Paul II in Laborem Exercens:

"Just as human activity proceeds from man, so it is ordered towards man. For when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside of himself and beyond himself. Rightly understood, this kind of growth is of greater value than any external riches which can be garnered ... Hence, the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it should harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and allow people as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it"

Man is rightly made to work, and cultivate the Earth. But time wasted raking over the 1s and 0s of modern technology, rather than raking the good soil, cultivating beauty, and planting the seeds of friendship will never achieve the common good. Rather, we will be left with a husk of the world, a world neglected by the very man who was meant to care for it.

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