Comment Opinion & Features

The Vatican reaches out to Silicon Valley

Pope Francis meets Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan (CNS)

The Holy Father is anything but a techie. He admits to not knowing how to use a computer and encourages parents to forbid smartphones at the dinner table. Nevertheless, Pope Francis has granted audiences to more big tech magnates than most leaders of major world powers.

In January 2016, Francis met Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt. Their chat only lasted 15 minutes and the content of their conversation wasn’t disclosed by either party. However, a source within the Vatican told the Guardian that they were joined by Jared Cohen, a former US State Department official who now leads Google Ideas (renamed Jigsaw that year). This “think/do tank”, as Cohen calls it, uses Google’s massive digital infrastructure to protect activists from oppressive governments.

Later that month, the Pope hosted Apple CEO Tim Cook. Francis said that modern communications are “a gift from God” in his message released the same day. The Holy Father added that they “can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarisation and division between individuals and groups”.

Francis then moved on to the social media magnates. In February 2016, he met Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom to “discuss the power of images”, as Systrom wrote on his own Instagram page. He presented the Pontiff with a “curated book of 10 Instagram images”, including one of the 2015 Baltimore riots.

Two weeks later, the Vatican launched Francis’s official Instagram account, @Franciscus, which gained a record-breaking million followers in 12 hours.

Then, in August of the same year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg paid a visit to the Holy Father. A spokesman for the Pope said the two discussed “how communications technology can be used to alleviate poverty, encourage a culture of encounter and help deliver a message of hope, especially to the most disadvantaged people”. Following the meeting, Zuckerberg wrote a post on his personal Facebook page praising Pope Francis and saying that “he’s found new ways to communicate with people of every faith around the world”.

No doubt many would dismiss these encounters as mere photo-ops. The Holy Father gets a chance to seem in touch with the new dominant industry in the Western economy, and what billionaire would turn down the chance to shake hands with the leader of the world’s largest religion? Some might go further and argue that it actually undermines the Pope’s message about fighting economic inequality. “On the global level we see a scandalous gap between the opulence of the wealthy and the utter destitution of the poor,” he has said. How deeply can he believe those words, some might ask, if he’s willing to pose for photos with the leaders of Silicon Valley: one of the most unequal regions in the United States?

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that any substantial policy decisions are made during these meet-and-greets. But at least one has yielded fruit. Just last month, Francis met Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith. They spoke about “artificial intelligence at the service of the common good and activities aimed at bridging the digital divide that still persists at the global level”, according to a Vatican press release.

In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Smith argued that “strong ethical and new, evolved laws” were required to ensure artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies don’t come into the possession of those who would misuse them. The Vatican and Microsoft also announced that they are co-sponsoring a prize for a doctoral dissertation on “artificial intelligence at the service of human life”. Perhaps that isn’t much to get excited about, but at least no one can say the Pope’s meetings with industry leaders have been totally unproductive.