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MPJI and Acton Institute Host Conference on Technology and Virtue

September 11, 2019 | Rebecca Au-Mullaney & Paul Glader

Tech New Media Virtue symposium

On September 6 and 7, the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College and the Acton Institute co-sponsored a symposium on “Technology, New Media and Virtue” at the King’s campus. The Acton Institute, named for the English historian Lord John Acton (1834-1902), is a think tank founded to “promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”

On Friday evening and all day Saturday, close to 150 journalists, academics, professionals, and students and alumni of The King’s College gathered together to consider how regular citizens can seek the truth, guard our liberties, and retain human dignity in a digital age filled with addictive technologies and information pollution.

Questions raised by the symposium included, “Should Big Tech companies and social media giants create public spaces where free speech abounds, or should they govern speech as traditional publishers do?” and, “How can citizens become more media literate in a digital age where social media blends and blurs content?”

The symposium kicked off on Friday with a dinner reception and screening of Joni Siani’s “Celling Your Soul,” an award-winning documentary about “our love/hate relationship with our devices,” from the viewpoint of 18- to 24-year-olds who make up the first generation of digital natives. After the screening, Dr. Dru Johnson, associate professor of biblical and theological studies at King’s, and Esther Jhun, the College’s director of counseling, moderated a Q&A with Siani.

On Saturday, Dan Churchwell of the Acton Institute introduced the symposium. Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat, presented the first keynote lecture with a Q&A moderated by Dr. Anthony Bradley, chair of the program in Religious and Theological Studies at The King’s College.

In her lecture, Riley presented her research on media consumption, noting that greater media consumption can widen existing inequities between populations. Her talk discussed some ways that families of school-age children have tried to mitigate the harmful effects of early social media use. One school district introduced a “Wait Until Eight” policy to urge families not to give children cell phones until they reach eighth grade.

After listening to the lecture and Q&A, Lilly Carman (MCA ’22) said that she would even be in favor of a more dramatic proposal: to wait until children are fully grown before allowing them access to “so much power, temptation, distraction.” She said, “For myself, I want my kids to remember their childhood as being outside and playing with each other and going on dangerous adventures. I think [social] media has bred mushy children who really lack grit.”

The second keynote was delivered by Dr. Richard John, professor of history and communications at Columbia University. Dr. Henry Bleattler, chair of the program in Media, Culture, and the Arts at The King’s College, moderated the Q&A. Dr. John suggested that free expression has had a long and storied history of tension as well as success in America. He suggested the history of free expression matters to current issues as the U.S. considers the role of social media giants and whether Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act needs to be updated to clarify the legal limits of Internet giants.

The symposium also featured two panel discussions, one on technology and virtue, moderated by Dan Churchwell of Acton Institute, and another on educating citizens to be savvy consumers of information, moderated by Paul Glader, director of the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute. Panelists included Silicon Valley technologist Aaron Ginn, former Experience Design Consultant for Google Joe Toscano, Associate Professor of Communication at Wheaton College Dr. Read Schuchardt, media scholar Joni Siani, tech writer David Ryan Polgar, media ethics and first amendment scholar Father Jordi Pujol, and Subverse co-founder and reporter Emily Molli.

Jackson Fordyce (Business ’20) particularly enjoyed Emily Molli’s comments about covering the current riots in Hong Kong. Fordyce said that Molli, aged 24, “was an inspiration to all students who want to pursue a career in journalism but who are discouraged by our youth.”

The symposium concluded with a discussion on ideas and solutions. Paul Glader, director of the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute, said, “Some consensus seemed to emerge around the idea that citizens should be pro-human rather anti-technology. And the speakers and audience generally seemed optimistic that innovation and tradition can lead us to a healthier, less tech-addicted, less cynical future.”