S1E11: A Tale of Two Realities
(The following is the manuscript for episode eleven of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on October 30th, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
“Media ecologist Marshall McLuhan reminded his generation that technology is always an extension of the self. A fork is simply an extension of my hand. My car is an extension of my arms and feet, and no less so than Fred Flintstone’s foot mobile. Likewise, my smartphone extends my cognitive functions. The active neurons in my brain are a crackling tangle of skill lightning, and my thought life resembles a thunderstorm over Kansas. This tiny electrical storm in the microscopic space of my nervous system quite naturally extends out to my thumbs to create tiny digital sparks of electricity inside my phone that beam out to the world by radio waves. This all means that my phone makes a place in time and space – outside of me – where I can project my relationships, my longings, and the full scope of my conscious existence.” - Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You
Tony Reinke opens up his book “12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You” by bringing Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic remarks to life in ways McLuhan himself could’ve never conceived of. McLuhan, who lived from 1911-1980, wouldn’t live to see the dawn of the Internet age, much less the smartphone and social media age, but he would’ve seen the dawn of the television age and how, through television entertainment, our television sets would project for us the life and culture that we would desire to live – and we could pick the programming that best corresponded to the version of ourselves that we idealized. Of course, television is no longer the best medium for accomplishing that goal – our smartphones, powered by social media, allows us to achieve an extension of ourself reflects our longings, relationships, and the full scope of our conscious existence more powerfully than ever before. If we are unsatisfied with the world we live in, we can retreat into a digital world of our creation through our smartphones, a world that reflects who we desire to be and that focuses solely on the things we desire to focus on, and we can be perpetually distracted from the world we actually and truly live in. But even smartphones and social media have their limits, and if, as we looked at last week, the future of technology and media is to contribute more and more to a distracted digital age, what exactly does that look like?
If technology is an extension of the self, then these extensions communicate something about ourselves and the world that we live in. Our smartphones are incredibly powerful tools for communication, but like we’ve talked about at multiple points in this season, mediums are not value neutral. They ask us to do certain things in order to engage with them, and how we engage with them reveals what those mediums value. This applies just as much to the machines as the social and intellectual environments – the mediums – that the machines, like smartphones, create. And if these machines and mediums value certain forms of communication, we must understand what these machines intend to be communicated. Tony Reinke quotes Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan, who succinctly captures this idea:
The tools set the agenda. A tool of communication is a tool for communicating something.
Tony Reinke, citing Oliver O’Donovan, in 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You
Reinke then immediately references a quote from theologian David Wells:
Media don’t just just lie around passively, waiting for us to come along and find them useful for some project we have in mind. They tell us what to do and, more significantly, what to want to do. There is a current in the stream, and if we don’t know how to swim, we shall be carried by it. I see someone doing something and I want to do it, too. Then I forget whatever it was that I thought I wanted to do.
Tony Reinke, citing David Well, in 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You
These ideas are central to the premise of Breaking the Digital Spell: asking questions about the technology and media that we take for granted to see how they shape the way we think about God and how we love our neighbor, and these tools of communication influence the way we communicate God in a distracted digital age to our distracted digital neighbors. Again, if the trajectory of technology is towards more and more distraction, these tools are communicating something for us, and they’re telling us what we should want to do. We cannot be ignorant as to what these desires and demands are.
There is no possible way we can cover all the new technology and media that is on the horizon – there is simply way too much to talk about, and with each passing month it seems as though there are newer possibilities on the horizon to consider. In this episode we are going to look at one particular form of technology that’s already here and gaining acceptance, but you can apply what O’Donovan and Wells discuss to the technology and media in your life. Communication tools are tools for communicating something – ask yourself, what do the tools you use in your life want you to communicate? Technology and media tell us what to do and, more significantly, what to want to do. What does the technology and media in your life want you to do, and what is it willing to do to make doing that easy and convenient? This can even apply to technology beyond the confines we’ve listed here. When we read about the increasing possibility of workplace automation via machines, or driverless cars promising safer roads with more free time for the former driver, or the disturbing possibility of brothels opening with robots for customers to sleep with, what is being communicated in these advances? What do they tell us to do and, more significantly, what to want to do? Armed with this perspective you have a starting point for being able to make sense of this rapidly changing digital world, and you’ll be able to break the digital spell with the questions you ask.
Let’s put that into practice with the main focus of this episode: extended reality technology.
Extended reality, according to a Medium.com article from tech networking firm North of 41, defines extended reality as “all real-and-virtual combined environments and human-machine interactions generated by computer technology and wearables.” Extended Reality, or XR, is an umbrella term for any kind of technology that blends the real world and the digital world to some degree through an interface. This term encompasses the other popular “reality” technology, including Augmented Reality (also known as AR), Virtual Reality (also known as VR), and Mixed Reality (also known as MR). Augmented Reality, or AR, takes live or direct interaction with the real world and adds digital elements on top of it, usually through the camera of a smartphone or tablet. If you played Pokemon GO or have seen people playing it, they’re using Augmented Reality – the camera footage from the real world is augmented with Pokemon that appear on the street corner or in someone’s front yard that you have to try and catch, but the foundation for that augmentation comes from whatever the phone camera captures in the real world. By contrast, Virtual Reality, or VR, totally removes direct interaction with the real world and completely replaces it with a digital world. VR technology, whether its a phone inside of a headset or a VR gaming rig like the Oculus Rift, requires you to completely block out the real world so your eyes can focus on a digital screen that moves as your head and body does. If you saw the recent film Ready Player One, you saw very powerful VR technology at work, and that level of immersion isn’t totally here yet but we are closer to it than you might think. Mixed Reality, or MR, is somewhere between AR and VR, and sometimes referred to as “hybrid reality”. The main thing that distinguishes MR is that content in the real world and content in the digital world are able to interact with each other – where virtual reality is a fully immersive digital reality and augmented reality adds supplemental digital content on top of some real-world content, like Pokemon in Pokemon GO, mixed reality technology blends the two and allows you to interact with the digital content given to you by your display in a real-world context. There are a few demonstration videos on Microsoft’s website for their HoloLens headset that show hologram and digital interfaces that can be controlled via hand gestures, such as “tapping” through a holographic menu by “tapping” it with your hand. All three of these forms of technology – AR, VR, and MR – extend the concept of “reality” from the real world into the digital space to some degree of immersion, with VR being total immersion in the digital world at the expense of the real world and AR and MR being a mixture of the two worlds to some degree.
Now, to be clear – extended reality technology is really, really cool. I personally do not have any desire to play VR games, but if Microsoft were to release a full and proper Halo VR game, I would play that in a heartbeat. The possibilities of VR and other extended reality technologies for creativity, storytelling, and entertainment are absolutely amazing. Likewise, the possibilities of MR technology in the workplace is truly incredible. One of the HoloLens demonstration videos showed an electrical technician making a Skype call to a factory engineer and together they troubleshoot an electrical problem in real time with the engineer having full access to what the technician could see through the HoloLens interface. That is awesome. Extended reality technology has just as much practical, real world potential as it does for creating highly immersive entertainment, and we can and should be thankful for what these tools could allow us to do. At this point I want to set aside talk of AR and MR to focus more on VR, because I think VR has unique implications for us to consider due to the fact that, unlike AR and MR, VR is a fully immersive digital experience. In order to use VR, you must block out the real world in order to interact with the digital world given to you in your headset, and this raises some questions that, as Christians, we need to consider, and we can use the perspective we outlined earlier in the episode as our starting point.
First of all, what does VR tell the user to do? This is another way of asking what VR values as a medium, and what that mediums values will be revealed in what that medium asks us to do in order to use it. VR tells the user that, as a baseline requirement for us, the real world must be completely tuned out, and VR technology is very powerful at tricking your brain into thinking that the digital world you’re now immersed in is the world you’re actually in. This sets us up for the next question: what does VR want us to want to do? What kind of desires does VR want us to have, and what is it willing to do to engender those desires in us? This is where VR’s strength becomes dangerous – there is nothing wrong with being fully immerse in a digital world for entertainment or recreation, but what happens when you’re immersing yourself in a digital world as a means of escaping the real world? VR wants us to desire a digital world that captivates our hearts and attentions more than the real world does, and is willing to offer the very experience necessary to make that possible. We can get sucked into distorted realities through prolonged exposure to a television screen after a Netflix binge or through starting at your smartphone for hours on end, but the real world is always in the peripheral vision as you stare into the screen. No matter how much you try, you can’t fully escape the fact that the house is falling apart or that you’re sitting on the couch alone when you watch television – no matter how much we might use television or the Internet to escape the real world, the screen size and location always leaves a little bit of the real world in the peripheral vision. VR takes that peripheral away and replaces it will a full digital world that could offer us what our real life can’t. The digital world could offer us a live of excitement or adventure. It can offer us the illusion of companionship and satisfaction, as the growing availability of VR pornography demonstrates. It can offer us beauty, fascination, and wonder when we can’t find it outside our front door. It can also allow us to satisfy our deepest, darkest desires, and Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University succinctly captures why this should concern us:
“Am I terrified of the world where anyone can create really horrible experiences? Yes, it does worry me. I worry what happens when a violent video game feels like murder. And when pornography feels like sex. How does that change the way humans interaction, function as society?”
Jeremy Bailenson, Three really real questions about the future of virtual reality
One possible result is a society very much like Ready Player One’s – a world where the real world has absolutely and completely collapsed because the digital world offered through the movie’s VR technology is more satisfying to us than the world we actually live in. The Oasis – Ready Player One’s digital world – is where the vast majority of human socialization now takes place, and given how hideous and broken the world is outside the screen – trailer houses stacked endlessly on top of each other, the smoggy air rendering the sky a neutral grey, where everyone is desperately chasing solutions in the digital world for problems they face in the real one, [its no surprise that people continue to turn to the digital world to escape the physical one]. I am not trying to suggest that VR technology will lead to a guaranteed dystopia like the one Ready Player One describes, but I also think it could very easily become that if we do not come to terms with our desire for distraction and escape and how VR technology will offer us a pinnacle of distraction of escape unlike anything else that has come before.
Again, to be clear – VR technology is pretty cool. I am not trying to say its not. However, just like all the other technology and media we’ve looked at this season, it’s not possible to adopt VR just for the cool and beneficial features. You either adopt all the consequences of VR, the good, bad, and dystopian, or you adopt none of it. But, unlike television, the Internet, social media, and smartphones, I think the bad and ugly of VR poses a more pernicious threat than the dangers of prior technology and media because VR, more than anything else that comes before it, has the ability to numb us to the world we live in – a world created by an omniscient and omnipotent Creator, who has created a universe that is beautiful, majestic, and awesome, but a universe that is marred by our sin against a perfectly holy and righteous King who has pronounced death to the enemies who broke his law. Outside of Christ, we are those enemies under that death sentence, and as sinful enemies of this King we despise his creation, his laws, his rule and authority and desire the means to enact our own authority, our own rule, our own laws, within our own creation. VR technology doesn’t allow us distraction on the same tier as our smartphones and social media – VR technology allows us to fully suppress the truth in our unrighteousness, and gives us some of the most powerful tools to do just that. I’m not trying to suggest that those who continue to pioneer and improve on this technology are secretly trying to accomplish this while hoodwinking us with the possible benefits of VR or other extended reality possibilities – again, extended reality technology holds some incredible possibilities for legitimately good uses, and VR is included in that. What I am saying is that VR technology is not value neutral, and what it values as a medium – giving us a fully immersive digital world we want to be based off our desires – is something that simultaneously strikes at the very core of what it means to be a human made in the image of God living in his creation. We used this quote from Alan Noble’s book Disruptive Witness several episodes ago, and ask yourself if you can conceive of a more powerful kind of technology that reinforces this notion of the “buffered self”:
Our pervasive culture of technological distraction dramatically exacerbates the effects of the buffered self, which in turn feeds the demand for technology of distraction. It is not a coincidence that these two forces have arisen at this point in history. The rise of secularism has inspired a view of technology and fullness rooted thoroughly in this life and established and chosen inwardly, which I believe has helped to justify the creation and adoption of technologies that are not directed toward human flourishing but instead help us project our identity and remain distracted. Outside of a culture of virtue grounded in an external source, science, technology, and the market have been driven to produce a society that prioritizes the sovereign individual. The modern person experiences a buffer between themselves and the world out there – including transcendent ideas and truths. The constant distraction of our culture shields us from the kind of deep, honest reflection needed to ask why we exist and what is true.
Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth In A Distracted Age
If modern technology and media exists to put a buffer between us and the world we truly live in, then we as Christians cannot afford to be silent on how technology and media, when incorrectly used, can be a severe obstacle to the Gospel. On next week’s episode of Breaking The Digital Spell: Conclusions, Part Two.