Brett Robinson: Masks as technology

There has been a lot of hype about wearable technology over the past few years. Fitbits, smart jewelry and AirPods have ushered in a new age of accessorizing with tech to enhance our bodies in some way. Many people have embraced this movement as a way to track their exercise routines or monitor their sleep habits.

But you don’t need batteries or a Bluetooth connection to use the latest wearable technology to cause a cultural stir. A simple technology, the medical mask, has become a ubiquitous feature of life in the midst of the current pandemic. And yet we don’t tend to think of masks as a technology per se. Instead they are viewed as a symbol that is almost entirely political.

Unfortunately the politicization of technology has come at the expense of understanding technology and its effect on our social, psychological and spiritual well-being. There is certainly a medical case to be made for wearing masks as it can be a deterrent to spreading a dangerous virus. But there are other ways to read technology if we are truly going to understand it.

The staff at Regenirex in Kearney, Neb., poses with the some of the masks made by John Beach. The Catholic military veteran is making three dozen masks for the Kearney Police Department. (CNS photo/courtesy John Beach via West Nebraska Register)

What is the psychological effect of not seeing the faces of people around us? A mix of suspicion and fear. The etymology of the word mask is the Latin “masca,” for “specter, nightmare.”

What are the effects of living in a “faceless” community? A growing sense of isolation and loneliness. The fact is, masks are media technologies. The etymology of media comes from the Medieval Latin “medium,” or middle. Masks come between human beings just like all forms of media.

To mediate our communication, whether print or electronic, is to construct an artificial layer between people. Despite its name, Facebook does not convey the actual faces of other people; rather, it inserts itself in between persons by creating a digital layer where faceless, digitized interaction takes place.

Technology comes between us and the other, and, as a result, the relationship between us and the other can be diminished.

Pope Francis spoke about this in his encyclical, “Laudato Si’.” Our technological innovations have come between us and nature in ways that haven’t always been mutually beneficial. This has happened on a global scale and the results have been calamitous as climate change science has revealed. But it’s also happening on an individual level.

Personal technology, whether mask or smartphone, intervenes in our relationships. It gets in the way of direct contact and adds a layer that diminishes our connection. At a time when we are starved for human contact and connection, both digital media and masks have precluded direct contact.

These new conditions lie at the root of the fear, suspicion and isolation that the masca and the medium have created. To overcome that fear and isolation, it is first necessary to understand it.

The same can be said of ourselves. The focus of this column on technology and theology has been the way in which technology can either deepen or diminish our understanding of ourselves and our relationships, with one another and with God.

To the extent that technology forces a recognition of ourselves, our motives and desires, our true face, it can be a good thing. As C.S. Lewis put it in his novel, “Till We Have Faces,” “How can (the gods) meet us face to face till we have faces?”

Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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