The Friday Interview: Dr Eamonn Conway, University of Limerick

29 Oct 2004

Priest, lecturer, writer, philosopher – Dr Eamonn Conway (pictured) is also a self-confessed gadget freak who admits to quite fancying the new BlackBerry currently being advertised on the radio. This is just a little ironic given that the often negative impact of technology on culture, religion and society is a topic on which he is something of an expert.

A priest of the Tuam Dioceses in County Galway, Conway is chair of the Ethics and Values working group within the Information Society Commission (ISC) and a speaker at the recent Ethics and Values in a Digital Age conference in Dublin, which was organised by the working group. In his ‘day job’, he heads the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Mary Immaculate College at the University of Limerick. He is also co-founder and joint director of UL’s Centre for Culture, Technology and Values – a sort of think tank for discussion of this complex tri-partite relationship.

An engaging, lively interviewee, Conway’s conversation jumps back and forth, picking out a useful statistic here, telling an amusing anecdote there. His basic concern is that despite the fact that technology is becoming ever more deeply embedded in society and important to daily living, we are giving little thought to its profound impact, both on ourselves as individuals and on wider society.

“One of the things discussed at the conference is the way technology can be used to allow us to avoid experiencing the emptiness in ourselves that forces us to ask questions of meaning. For example, the pervasiveness of the mobile phone means we are in superficial contact with people all the time but there’s very little depth to it. The German poet [Rainer] Rilke asked, ‘Is it possible that in spite of our discoveries and advances, despite our culture, religion and science, we remain on the surface of life?’ while Brendan Kennelly talks about how we’ve created a society where ‘we half live our lives, half dream our dreams, half love our loves’. So, on the one hand technology makes it possible to have the luxury to even ask these questions … but the question is really, are we genuinely free? Do these technologies give us the freedom to live life at depth? We are addicted to living life on the surface and there are more and more ways and means to avoid depth – except when a crisis comes and then we go scurrying in search of it.”

One of the questions the ISC Ethics and Values working group is currently grappling with is whether new technologies present new dilemmas or just present old dilemmas in new ways. “An example is truth telling,” he says. “There is so much information available on the internet that it is much easier to present flawed research as fact, plagiarise essays or pull facts off the internet. Another ethical question is the built-in obsolescence of technology. How does our own experience of technology as being disposable overflow into everything else in our lives so that ultimately everything becomes disposable, even relationships. When we encounter problems, we move on, instead of trying to repair them.”

The debate about the role of technology in a digital age is becoming more and more relevant as countries, especially developed ones such as Ireland, talk about ‘moving up the value chain’ and becoming knowledge economies. When this policy is aired by our public representatives, the presumption is made that such an evolution would be a good thing for everyone and society as a whole. Conway feels a debate is needed on this issue. He also feels that in our headlong rush towards becoming a knowledge economy we are sidelining a very important source of learning: The Humanities.

“We’re cutting down the tree that made the Irish educational system what it is and I work in that educational system,” he asserts. “It wasn’t a narrow investment in science and technology that made Ireland what it is today.”

He continues: “My main concern is that balance in the Irish educational system is being tipped towards science and technology and it will in fact it will damage both science and The Humanities. And then we will have nothing to offer.”

Though clearly a man of reason and no little intelligence, Conway is above all a humanist who believes that having knowledge is one thing; to be able to apply meaning to it is another challenge altogether. By ‘meaning’ he is not talking about the intellectual process of understanding; more the unique human ability – some would call it the wisdom – to package that knowledge so that is used for positive ends. The challenge we face today is: “how to nurture people to exercise and use the knowledge they have with a sense of genuine care, which is about putting yourself into the situation of others.”

What is required here is leadership, he feels, and he has even coined a term, ‘e-leadership’, to sum up his thinking. The term has nothing to do with the internet; it stands for ‘Empathy leadership’ and refers to a person’s ability to know and care about another person’s situation.

“In the past the people who were able to exercise that type of leadership to a large extent came out of the Humanities schools in Ireland,” he says, returning to his theme. “What we’ve seen a steadfast decline both in the status and the prestige attaching to these colleges.”

He continues, “When you’re looking for meaning, do you turn to data? Does data give your life meaning? That is why, hand in hand with the technological development and investment in research and science, there has to be equal investment in educating people to exercise discerning leadership in terms of how that technology is applied.”

Although the ISC may be mulling over the issues of value and ethics in IT, Conway questions the depth of the Government’s commitment to the subject. “There are times when profitability – in the narrow economic sense – will suffer by taking a certain course of action. The question for the government is whether it is prepared to make value-led and ethical decisions even it were not profitable to do so.”

To promote thinking and discussion in the area, he feels the government should establish a commission, a permanent body that would deal and advise government on these complex issues. “We put a lot of money into the environment and protecting the quality of the air that we breathe. What about protecting the cultural air that we breathe?”

It would be quite wrong to think of Conway as some sort of anti-technology vigilante, who has identified the internet, mobile phones and so on as agents of a modern plague infecting our lives. Technology, like life itself, can be both good and bad. “We have tremendous potential to do good with technology but also the possibilities for misusing it are also exponentially increased. When we look at September 11, it is an extraordinary reminder of what happens when technology, culture and religion come together in the wrong way.”

Techology and ethics can co-exist, he concludes, but we must work to make it happen. “At the conference we were presented with a number of examples of how technology is being used to work towards digital inclusion and overcome the disadvantages in society. But the big shift has been that there is no imposed system anymore: we are very much on our own in making ethics and values choices and the question is whether we have the maturity to make those choices ourselves. I welcome that [development] but the fact is that we are in a society that requires us to have a level of maturity we never had before – and that’s a challenge.”

By Brian Skelly