Synopsis

Virtual reality is real in effect but not in fact. The assault of virtual reality occurs on at least four planes: (1) assault on place – critics of alternate reality say that the outside world, although not yet completely redundant, is getting there fast and we are becoming increasingly more isolated from the external world by machines that simulate it; (2) assault on reality – French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard proclaimed modern society has substituted symbols for true reality and that culture and media, such as the Internet, create a perceived reality; (3) assault on identity – social roles, once bound by the constraints of the physical world, now find their boundaries removed and when the individual is separated from the physical world the ego refracts wildly and at will; (4) assault on community – virtual reality promises to eliminate the difficulties associated with face-to-face interaction and to render the natural world obsolete, leaving us to realize that we have annihilated the need for true community and in so doing have lost a part of ourselves. As Christians we must not lose sight of the essential differences between reality and the virtual reality of cyberspace. Every Christian who truly accepts Christ’s call to salvation from this world and the alternate realities within it must become equipped to see past the trappings of virtual reality to essential incarnational Christianity in effective and creative ways. Respect for reality depends on a life lived close to the physical world. A revolution in both sensibility and lifestyle capable of freeing us from our overdependence on abstraction is necessary; a revolution capable of reconnecting us to the great human pursuit of having a real sense of who we are and where we belong in the world, what our priorities are, and just who created this reality and why.

“It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.”1 —Jean Baudrillard, French cultural theorist

An avatar (abbreviated av or avi) is an Internet user’s representation of him- or herself as an online virtual body. In virtual reality (hereafter, VR), you could be a bombshell, decked out in the latest Gucci knock-offs, or a dinosaur wagging your tail. The only limits to your appearance are the limits of your imagination, your time, and your wallet. If you can think it, you can be it.2

Second Life (SL) is a 3-D virtual world created by its residents. Since opening publicly in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by millions of Residents (Second Lifers, or SLers) from around the globe. If you choose to visit SL, from the moment you enter, you’ll discover a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences, and opportunity. You will also be surrounded by the creations of your fellow Residents. Because Residents retain intellectual property rights in their digital creations, they can buy, sell, and trade with other Residents. SL’s virtual marketplace currently supports millions of real US dollars in monthly transactions, through its own in world unit of trade, the Linden dollar, which can be converted to US dollars at several thriving online Linden dollar exchanges.

Players Magazine, a virtual version of Playboy, is one of the most popular publications in SL and is published by SL Resident Marilyn Murphy. Every week, the Herald, SL’s premiere newspaper, in conjunction with Players, features a new “Post Six Grrrl” (a play on the page three girls of British tabloids). The Post Six photo spreads were designed by Murphy to show off the most attractive avatar Residents in SL. One of these residents is the avatar Diamond Hope, a conservative Midwestern single mother who never considered posing nude for an erotica magazine, but in the alternate world of SL, why not? After all, it wasn’t really her, and the virtual photography and visual flattery she received from Marilyn was downright inspiring.

When a male named Unmitigated Gall read the article, he was so taken with Di’s looks and personality that he contacted her in SL and the two began a virtual romance. Months later, they were married—not just in SL, but in the real world as well. The Herald celebrated its first virtual matchmaking—only to find that the couple broke up a year later.

Before you dismiss the medium of computer-generated realities out of hand in light of this unsettling example, consider the case of Matt, an experienced Web evangelist, who writes:

The other day I went in to Second Life to have a look around and once I had mastered the controls, I searched for a coffee shop and picked one randomly to “teleport” to. I wanted to find somewhere to sit and relax hoping to have a chat with someone who was enjoying an online cup of coffee. I arrived at a building with tables and chairs…I chatted with someone about whether there could be a God and who Jesus really was. We talked for about two hours and covered a lot of ground—including sin, forgiveness and Jesus’ death on the cross.3

STRANGE NEW WORLD

What is this strange virtual universe where we can become emotionally attached to an apparently bloodless technological ritual or have our avatar share Christ with the avatar someone else has created on the other end of the Ethernet cable? Is it possible that the person’s avatar might accept Christ, but the real person who created the avatar, who sits before the screen somewhere in the world, might remain an agnostic?

On every continent, day and night, around the clock, millions of people ranging from a Midwestern housewife and her teenage son or daughter (there is also Teen SL) to married couples and singles alike take part in computer-mediated social groups known as virtual communities, and the numbers are growing at an alarming rate.

It is safe to say that many people do not succumb to the addictive mechanisms of these alternate realities. There are quite a few that do, however, and although one must be careful to avoid characterizing any community—virtual or not—by virtue of its most troubling case studies, a closer look at such instances is necessary to understand the nature of how they work.

Consider Shawn Wooley. Succumbing to an ongoing struggle with depression and schizoid personality disorder and suffering a traumatic setback to one of his characters in the virtual world of EverQuest, the twenty-one-year-old shot himself to death in his apartment in Hudson, Wisconsin, on Thanksgiving morning, 2001.

Another twenty-one-year-old college student stopped going to class within eight weeks after he started playing EverQuest his senior year. After playing the game for thirty-six hours straight, he had a psychotic break, believing that the characters were coming out of the game after him, and took off running through the neighborhood.

In August of 2005, a twenty-eight-year-old South Korean man played the game Starcraft at an Internet cafe for fifty hours straight, got up to go to the bathroom, and collapsed and died. Reports say that he had not slept nor eaten within that time and probably died from heart failure stemming from exhaustion.

In Nevada, the children of Michael and Iana Straw, a boy age twenty-two months and a girl age eleven months, were severely malnourished and near death when social workers took them to a hospital. Hospital staff shaved off the girl’s hair because it was matted with cat urine. The ten-pound girl also had a mouth infection, dry skin, and severe dehydration. Her brother was treated for starvation and a genital infection, and had difficulty walking due to lack of muscle development. According to the prosecutor, “They had food; they just chose not to give it to their kids because they were too busy playing video games”—mainly the fantasy role-playing “Dungeons and Dragons” series.

THE ESSENCE OF VIRTUAL REALITY

“Finding the ‘Lectronic Link was like discovering a cozy little world that had been flourishing without me, hidden within the walls of my house,” writes Internet pioneer and technology expert, Howard Rheingold. “An entire cast of characters welcomed me to the troupe with great merriment as soon as I found the secret door. Like others who fell in…I soon discovered that I was audience, performer, and scriptwriter, along with my companions, in an ongoing improvisation. A full-scale subculture was growing on the other side of my telephone jack, and they invited me to help create something new.”4

By definition, virtual reality is “an event or entity that is real in effect but not in fact.” VR, then, is this otherworld where electronic simulation is designed to make something seem real that in fact is not.

Consider the following ancient story, adapted from a Taoist legend that anticipates the metaphysics of VR:

The commission money was good, and the artist arrived on time. One of the executives from corporate design was there to meet her at the door. After touring the facilities, the artist was left alone to begin painting. Each day the mural materialized a bit more, section by section, spreading a ribbon of color across the large gray wall at the end of the lobby. First, a green patch of forest glade appeared, two blossoming plum trees, three sky blue vistas, and a Cheshire cat on a branch. Finally came the day when the tarp would fall. Employees gathered around plastic cups and croissants. When the speeches were over, the room grew hushed for the unveiling. The crowd grasped. The wall came alive with paradise, an intricate world of multicolored shapes. Several employees lingered to chat with the artist. Once the congratulations died down, the artist strolled to the center of the mural, stopping where the garden path leads into the forest, and with her face to the crowd, she smiled, bowed, and turned her back. Walking into the green leaves, she was never seen again.5

We see both the power of artistic illusion and the human desire to create realities within and beyond our own; to suspend belief in one reality in order to consider our place in another. The story reveals our ability to enter alternate worlds and our enjoyment in being enthralled with other planes of being—whether they be in a short story, film, painting, or virtual world.

“Virtual” or “Viral”?

As Christians we must not lose sight of the essential differences between the reality in which we live and move and have our being, and the virtual reality of cyberspace where we encounter a world that, at its worst, seeks to turn the world as we know it into a virtual dream.

As cyber-critic Mark Slouka puts it, “Negotiating the electronic precincts of cyberspace, it seemed to me, was a bit like lying down drunk, feeling the room start to turn and spin, and not having a floor to ground you. Or finding yourself in a dream that starts to go bad. There was something vaguely nightmarish about this hunger for transcendence, this lust for dissolution, this utter lack of loyalty to the earth, the body, the human community. Behind the hallucinogenic jargon, the collage of quotes, and the mixed metaphors, I sensed something very lonely. And very frightening.”6

Every Christian who truly accepts Christ’s call to salvation from this world and the alternate realities within it—be they mediated by telephone, television, or computer screens—must therefore become equipped to see past the trappings of virtual reality to essential incarnational Christianity in effective and creative ways.

In Latin, the word “virus” refers to a toxin or poison. A virus is an infectious agent that is unable to grow or reproduce outside a host cell. When does “virtual” reality become a “viral” reality?

In an attempt to answer this question, I summarize my perspective around the memorable acronym P-R-I-C-E. If abused, like a virus infecting all cellular life, VR can be an assault to all that makes our world have meaning; our sense of Place, Reality, Identity, and Community. I argue that the acknowledgment of this fact can create, and hopefully bring about, a return to Essentialism—a shift of allegiance to the virtual world to this very real world we actually occupy and to Christian community as mediated by Jesus Christ Himself.

Assault on Place

M.I.T. Professor Bruce Mazlish believes that we humans are not nearly as privileged in regards to machines as we might think we are. “Man’s evolutionary drive…,” he writes, “has seemed to be in the direction of creating his own surround [sic]…and thus moving further away from his animal nature.”7

Mazlish points to the dystopic novel We,8 written by Yevgeny Zamyatin. “Man ceased to be a wild animal only when he built the Green Wall, when he had isolated our perfect machine world from the irrational, hideous world of trees, birds, animals.”9

Mazlish contends such an irrational world is on its way out, that “such are the signs of the times,” and soon enough our world will be “inhabited solely by humans and machines” and animals will be destroyed simply because man has the need “to eradicate the animal in himself [and] is willing, at least in imagination, to eradicate [animals] in the world at large. And perhaps in actuality.”10

Mazlish believes that we will grow tired and disgusted with our fleshly endeavors and, being repulsed by the hideous world, we will “not wish to settle for such a limited condition [but] aspire to be angels, if not God.”

In his opinion, it is the Christian faith’s “strong emphasis on escaping the body, and especially abjuring sex,” that brings it all about; its idea that within their community all are one in the blood of the Lamb and that humanity wants to shed “its bestial nature and become pure in spirit.” “Who has not felt at times the ‘foulness’ of the body and the desire to shake it off?,” he asks, “[who] has not felt revulsion at the ‘base’ necessity of bowel movements, or perhaps even of sex?”

Mazlish and other technoevangelists of his ilk might quickly be dismissed as hyperbolizing, were they not so serious and un­apolo­getic when it comes to engineering a synthetic environment, or technologizing our world to the point of hallucination.

But they are quite serious. And, Slouka adds, “they don’t have much patience with those not tapped in to their vision of the future. The technoevangelists, the cyberists represent the endgame, the grand finale to one of the great human migrations of all time: the twenty-first century movement into our own ‘surround.’”11

Critics of alternate reality say that the outside world, although not yet completely redundant, is getting there fast and we are becoming more and more isolated from the external world, “our retreat facilitated by machines capable of providing us with many of the things (community, landscape, love, adventure) that only recently required going out.”12 We’ve been cyberizing with a vengeance.

Assault on Reality

“The general breakdown of the barrier separating original from simulation, fact from fake, is visible everywhere; the slow bleeding of reality into illusion is systematic.”13 French cultural theorist and philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, (1929–2007), was perhaps the most ardent modern critic of what he defined as “hyperreality” and its assault on reality. His theories detailed how man’s search for total knowledge would always lead him in the end to delusion.

For Baudrillard, although we struggle to understand the world as objects around us, it is the objects themselves that are merely signifiers and point us back to ourselves, in a never-ending circle that leaves us having not yet found what we set out looking for. We are seduced by the object, by the virtual reality in the case of this exploration, toward a “simulated” version of reality, and we run to it, because we are loathe to face the shortcomings of the real-world alternative.

In his Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard boldly proclaimed that modern society has substituted symbols and signs for true reality and meaning and now accepts a simulation of reality rather than reality itself. The simulacra are signs of culture and media, such as the Internet, that create a perceived reality. He identified three types of simulacra:

1) Pre-modern Period—the image is an artificial “placemarker” for the real item.

2) Industrial Revolution—the image and reality breaks down due to the proliferation of mass-produced copies.

3) Postmodern Age—the image (simulacrum) precedes the original and the distinction between reality and representation break down.

Baudrillard used an analogy taken from the fable “On Exactitude in Science” written by Jorge Luis Borges.14 Borges tells of a map created by an Empire so detailed that it was the exact same size as the Empire itself. As the map grew or shrank, so did the Empire, until one fateful day the kingdom crumbled, and all that remained was the map itself. Baudrillard believed that in society today, we actually live in the map, the simulation of reality, and the real terrain that the map represents, what was once true reality, is slowly slipping from our grasp. He wrote:

The transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing, marks the decisive turning point. The first implies a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates an age of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgement to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance.15

There is much to disagree with in Baudrillard’s various theories, and I take him to task in a forthcoming Journal article, but one cannot dispute his genius as it applies to the proliferation of the hyper-reality of cyberspace. When he speaks of the “infantile degeneration” of this reality into virtual reality and writes, “it is that of the adults themselves who come here to act the child in order to foster illusions as to their real childishness,”16 I pause for what seems a long, uncomfortable moment, before signing my avatar on to Second Life for a flight around the virtual universe.

Assault on Identity

Cyber-critic Slouka didn’t realize the extent of the assault on identity until he mentioned his interest in cyberspace to an acquaintance (whom he calls Avram, in order to protect his identity). Avram was a graduate student in political science, a husband, a father, and a long-term citizen in a cyberspace community. Meeting at a university computer room, well after dark, they signed on for some adventure. “Morpho” (Slouka) and Avram joined several others online, including Janie and Nietzsche. Avram waved “hi” by typing in the action, to which Morpho waved back and Nietzsche blew Allison a kiss. Allison? “I suddenly realized that Avram had taken on a female persona in this world,” Slouka writes about his friend’s avatar. Initially, “I was curious to see if I could pull it off,” Avram said to Slouka, but Allison soon began to take on a life of her own.

Slouka asked him if, two years after giving birth to Allison, he could reveal his true gender to his friends on the Net. “I could never do that,” he said. “They’d probably never talk to me again. They’ve told me things, as a woman….They’d see it as a kind of betrayal.”17

A few days later Avram stopped by to tell Slouka what he had already suspected: Avram and Janie had been having an affair. He was in love with her and they had been “meeting” for at least five times a week for about two years now. And because Janie had fallen in love with someone named Allison, the relationship had to be lesbian. To Avram, if the affair were to end, he could never go back to being just Avram; to come off the Net would be tantamount to killing the persona. Allison was real to him now. She was him. To silence her was unthinkable.

Avram’s real wife didn’t even have a clue. He felt bad about it, and explained that occasionally he would space out for five or ten minutes at a time, because he wasn’t there with his real wife in his actual living room, but rather with Janie, in cyberspace.

Assault on Community

In 1909, English novelist E. M. Forster was troubled by the increasingly machinelike dynamic of twentieth-century life that separated people from one another. He sat down to write a science fiction novella, the dystopic nightmare, “The Machine Stops.”18

The novella’s main character, Vashti, lives in “a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee” where she shops by phone, orders food by phone, gives lectures to an audience she can see and hear without leaving her room. Vashti is also pathologically afraid of direct experience. In her world, direct observation, physical space, the unmediated event, have all been banished. Her room—an underground bunker linked to others through a sort of computer fully equipped to compensate for the outside world—is a self-enclosed universe. “Though it contained nothing,” Forster tells us, “it was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”

Into this self-enclosed world (his image appears on a blue, TV-like plate) come Vashti’s son, Kuno, a rebel, a malcontent, who lives in a room just like hers in the Southern hemisphere. “I want you to come and see me,” he says. “Pay me a visit so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.” Eventually, though already anticipating “the terrors of direct experience,” Vashti agrees to go.

Face-to-face with his mother, Kuno tells her of his crime. In this Age of the Machine, in which direct experience has been demonized and the natural world rendered obsolete, Kuno has been to the surface. His rebellion knows no bounds: “We say space is annihilated,” he argues, “but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves.” Kuno—young, aggressive, curious—is determined to recover the physical world. “Man is the measure,” he claims, to his mother’s horror. “Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.”19

Crawling upward through the machine, Kuno claims to have stuck his head into the darkness of actual night. “I felt that humanity existed…and that all these tubes and buttons and machineries neither came into the world with us, nor will they follow us out, nor do they matter supremely while we are here.”

Vashti, struck dumb by her son’s confession, leaves him to his fate, knowing that “on atavism the machine can have no mercy.” She returns to her cell in the hive, unshaken in her devotion to the Machine. The room hums, the machines do their work. Swaddled in comfort, she resumes the abstract life she briefly interrupted.

Is it possible that Forster’s fiction describes an incremental apocalypse? Increasingly enervated, impatient, and irritable, humanity entrusts everything to the machine. And the machine stops.

In our lifetime, perhaps, it’s just getting started.

RETURN TO ESSENTIALISM

Is there a way to make it back from the virtual brink? Or, perhaps the question is, Do we even want to? I will not argue for a reductionism that speaks of the “good old days” when albums were cool and computers were science fiction, but instead that there is a place we should still consider; namely, the physical world we occupy.

Slouka writes that, in order to resuscitate our faith in truth and recognize its importance [thus] rededicating ourselves to its acquisition, there must be a “returning, whenever possible, to original things; by recognizing that truth, and a respect for truth, are somehow linked to a respect for reality, and that respect for reality depends on a life lived close to the physical world.”20 What we need, he believes (and I agree), is a revolution, in both sensibility and lifestyle that is “capable of freeing us from our overdependence on abstraction; a revolution capable of reconnecting us to essential things—the things, that is, that we can experience directly and for ourselves, not through the mediating influence of technology.”21

Essentialism by the definition offered here does not require anything too radical, but instead advocates that, before we rush to create Huxley’s prophesized brave new world, we think long and hard about how we might actually, through incremental, everyday gestures—turning off the television, going for a walk, getting involved in a community event, meeting F2F (face-to-face) in the office instead of conference calling—we take back the “real” space we need from the “virtual” space we don’t necessarily need and to which we’ve surrendered such valuable real estate.

Why fight for such sacred ground? What might we gain? “Quite conceivably something like the sense of psychological well-being that one gets form coming clean after having become entangled in a net of lies and half-truths.”22

In other words, perhaps technology isn’t always right and shouldn’t ever dictate to us the world as it should be. Were we to silence the incessant humming of the virtual hive at work for just a moment—to become aware that we work all day to earn money to pay for entertainment media that tell us what to desire and which brand to consume—might there result, perhaps, “a right relation to the world, a renewed sense of clarity in our lives”23?

If we are brave enough to return to an essentialism that dares go against the tsunami of information overload, there may still be life yet in the great human pursuit of having a real sense of who we are and where we belong in the world, what our priorities are, and just who created this reality and why He went to such great lengths to do so.

—C. Wayne Mayhall

C. Wayne Mayhall is the associate editor of the Christian Research Journal, professor of apologetics at Liberty University, and the author of Patterns of Religion (Cengage Publishing, 2003) and Religious Autobiographies (Cengage Publishing, 2004).

notes

1 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. by Sheila Faria Glaser (London: Continuum, 2004), 12–13.

2 Mark Bell and Sarah Robbins, Second Life for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2008), 8.

3 From “Second Life Gospel: The Potential for Evangelism and Church Planting,” http://ied.gospel.com.net/secondlife-evangelism.php (accessed November 11, 2008).

4 Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 1–2.

5 Michael Heim, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993), 128–29.

6 Mark Slouka, War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 37.

7 Bruce Mazlish, The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 8.

8 Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (New York: Penquin, 1993).

9 Mazlish, 184.

10 Ibid.

11 War of the Worlds, 72.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 128.

14 The one-paragraph short story “On Exactitude in Science,” by Jorge Luis Borges, available at http://www.idb.arch.ethz.ch/files/borges_on_exactitude_in_science.pdf.

15 Paul Hegarty, Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory (London: Continuum, 2004), 75.

16 Simulacra and Simulation, 13.

17 War of the Worlds, 56–59.

18 E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” (1909), available at http://brighton.ncsa.uiuc.edu/ prajlich/forster.html (accessed November 10, 2008).

19 Ibid.

20 War of the Worlds, 149.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., 150.

23 War of the Worlds, 150.

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