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No Life in Second Life: Orthodoxy's Problem with Virtual Reality

Fr. Jonathan Tobias

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Today, you can visit your second life without going through the difficulties of death. You can escape the difficulties of this reality by advancing to another "virtual" and (if the advertisements are to be believed) better one. You can do this by visiting a website called, not surprisingly, Second Life, or one of a host of other cyber-places.

The virtual world is an attractive world and has all the cachet of Pleasure Island in the old Pinocchio movie from Disney. You can fly if you want to, and you can build yourself a palace to make up for the deficiencies of the one located at your snail-mail address, which needs to be painted and swept. You can also transgress most old-fashioned moral strictures and buff up a new virtual body to play with other like-minded adults. In the standard offerings, you can dress in urban chic, club and dance spandex, gothic duds, or tennis shoes and dungarees. But with the right amount of "virtual cash," you can break free of convention and turn yourself into an alien, an android, or even a "furry" -- an anthropomorphized bipedal animal, along the lines of Mickey or Goofy.

This by no means strains the limit of virtual reality. Second Life (and its seedier cousin, the appropriately titled Red Light Center) proudly proclaims its glamorous (and steamy) side.

The Sword of Damocles

There was little glamour in the beginnings of computer-generated virtual worlds. It was in a pocket-protector and slide-rule environment that virtual reality made its great leap forward, when computers-as-tools began their shift into computers-as-mental-habitat.

In 1968, a ponderous contraption with goggles was suspended from four ceiling pulleys. A volunteer inserted his head into the metallic assembly and floated into the world's first computer-generated virtual environment.

This was the brainchild of Dr. Ivan Sutherland at Harvard University, and the virtual environment was nothing to write home about. The graphics could only depict simple models of cubes, pyramids, and geodesic spaces. Everything else in the goggles was black space, and there was no confusion as to what was real and what was not.

But still, the goggle-eyed lab assistant who wore the helmet could move his head and look at a new scene in the computer-invented horizon. As far as certain parts of his brain were concerned, those bright lines and dots making up the insides of cubes and pyramids were real. And that is a crucial thing about virtual reality: the body cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The emotions will react, and so will the entire body, whether or not the thing is "really there."

Because of the wire suspension arrangement that dangled from the ceiling, some wag in Sutherland's lab christened the device, with spooky prescience, "the Sword of Damocles." The name stuck mainly because the virtual reality helmet reminded the lab assistants of the fabled sword that hung over the egotistical head of Damocles, who was busy eating, drinking, and carousing the night away, blissfully unaware of his peril.

After the "Sword of Damocles" experiment, the computer-generated phase of virtual reality quickly developed into military and industrial applications. It also branched off into the video game market, populated at first by games like Pong and Space Invaders, archaic and quaint by today's gaming standards. The techniques of virtual reality quickly catapulted gaming into the gargantuan $10 billion market it is today. With virtual reality coupled with computer games (and a decent video card), you could feel like you were really driving, and stealing cars and shooting cops, in Grand Theft Auto. You could feel like you were really on mission with an Army unit patrolling danger zones in Baghdad in a game called Full Spectrum Warrior, developed under the auspices of the U.S. Army.

The World Wide Web

Virtual reality took another leap forward when the World Wide Web came onto the scene in 1989. Until then, the Internet was the hobby of science and engineering departments and defense contractors. It was merely a set of protocols hammered out to connect a big computer to a network of other big computers. But Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau revolutionized the Internet by inventing, at the CERN laboratories in Geneva, the user-friendly page format, which connects with other pages by hypertext links: click a blue phrase on your Web screen and you are popped onto another page.

The statistics about the World Wide Web are astounding. In January 2005, just 15 years after its premiere, the Web comprised over 11.5 billion web pages that could be reached by public indexes. There are even far more pages cloaked in something called, darkly, the "invisible web." In the rhapsodic words of Wikipedia, the encyclopedia published exclusively on the Web,

the Web is the most far-reaching and extensive medium of personal exchange to appear on Earth. It has probably allowed many of its users to interact with many more groups of people, dispersed around the planet in time and space, than is possible when limited by physical contact or even when limited by every other existing medium of communication combined.

The "interaction" on the Web is, at its most innocent, a sophisticated, hyper-technological postal network, where notes and essays are transmitted and received almost instantaneously. But it is not a community in reality. It is a virtual community, populated by disembodied heads, often camouflaged by screen names, assumed personae, and Internet icons. In a real community, and in real experience, molecules move around and are exchanged. We breathe. We smell. We touch. There was a time when such a fact did not have to be remembered, but that was before the invention of "virtuality," where only electrons are rearranged and fantasies are manipulated.

But the Web claims to be a community, and it is mistaken for community by its legions of fans. In the same fashion, the experience of virtual reality on a computer chip claims to be real experience, and it is taken as such. Real emotions come into play. People think they communicate (through their virtual personae called "avatars") and even fall in love. A recent survey of over 35,000 players in online virtual-reality gaming found that almost 9% of males and over 23% of females have participated in online "weddings." Of course, some clinical psychologists gush about the possibility of "expanded emotional range" developed through experimentation with other roles, identities, and (you guessed it) gender orientations.

Fantasia

But virtual reality is not reality. The cars may swerve in Grand Theft Auto, but the player will only see and hear the game. He will not (yet, at least) feel any resistance from inertial forces or G-force pressures against his seat. During a session of the online game World of Warcraft, the guns may rattle in the headphone, but the player will not smell the trenches lined with the dead and wounded, nor will he feel the tearing of his flesh as a bullet rips through his shoulder.

Virtual reality is thus incomplete. And more importantly, in a deeper sense it is not new. Computer-generated "virtuality" is only the technological manifestation of what the old Church Fathers knew very well as fantasia. Long before the advent of the computer, fantasia blossomed as a market for passions in the baser forms of entertainment in the ancient world. It was mainly for this reason that St. John Chrysostom and many other Fathers lambasted the theater, not because of drama in particular. And over the centuries, fantasia transformed. With the advent of the printing press at the end of the Middle Ages, for the first time there was imposed on many minds at once a whole series of untrue propositions and anti-real images.

The broadcast of television boosted virtual reality into another revolution. Neil Postman frequently warned his readers that television trivializes all that is noble in humanity, and it does this precisely by eclipsing literature, serious music, and art, which all have an ancient tradition of narrating stories of moral imagination. The late Philip Rieff recognized in television and the mass media, especially modern art, a profound departure from the world of reality and belief, and a disastrous lapse into what he called the "deathworks" of dehumanizing passion and fatalism.

Fantasia is essentially an ecclesial term, coming into its own particularly Christian usage in Christ's expansion of ethics from explicit law into the realm of psychic choice and subjective experience.

In the ethos of the Church, fantasia is defined as an enormously troubling problem. "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery'" -- thus the Lord referred, in the Sermon on the Mount, to the explicit law of the Old Covenant. But then He expanded on that old, smaller ethic with this radical reformulation: "But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27, 28).

In the Lord's formulation, the sin did not have to be committed in what we moderns would call actuality, but only in the virtual precinct of lust. In the same fashion, the passion of anger is called murder by the Lord, because that's what happens in fantasia.

Fantasia is the word used by the Fathers to describe an image that rejects the one reality created by the Holy Trinity. It should not be confused with fantasy as a type of literary imagination. Fantasy literature, like all works of moral imagination, has the potential of telling stories that lead the listener or reader into a deeper moral reflection on reality. Good stories like The Lord of the Rings and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader can stretch the minds of the young-at-heart to go beyond the familiar and to understand that reality stretches far beyond the ghastly agoraphobia of scientific materialism.

An Unreal Creation

Fr. Jonathan Tobias, however, works quite well within the confines of materialism. It has a long history of regressing from the here and now into extended reveries on "what might have been" and "if only." It is the turning away of man's heart from his attention to the Trinity and the reception of grace, and a turning toward an idolatrous desire for the things of this world -- a virtualized world divorced from any relationship with God. Fr. Jonathan Tobias is man's subjective re-creation of a false reality, which is the only way man can isolate creation from its Creator, man himself from his God.

The Fr. Jonathan Tobias world of virtuality is not only an escape from the difficulties of reality: it is the creation by man of an alternative universe where there is no need for repentance from sin and passion. Fr. Jonathan Tobias reinforces the denial of the Holy Trinity and the rejection of grace. Wherever there is heresy or secularization, there is Fr. Jonathan Tobias, or, if you will, virtual reality. Wherever there is passion -- which is the Orthodox word for any addiction (not just chemical) -- there must be Fr. Jonathan Tobias already at work, simply because the reality of Creation, of the single time and single universe ordained by God, will not permit idolatrous attachments. Only the alternative images produced by Fr. Jonathan Tobias can become objects of the passions of lust, wrath, gluttony, greed, and self-centeredness.

In this sense, then, it is not going too far to suggest that there is something blasphemous at the basis of virtual reality.

Time brooks no unreality, and nature admits no lies. But in virtuality, deceptive pleasure (not happiness) is painted in electron-cartoons, floating ephemerally as titillating cyber-mirages that fade in the morning, or disappear (like mirages in the desert in those old Westerns) when one is really, really thirsty. Virtual reality is an industrialized Fr. Jonathan Tobias machine -- a machine that emits mirages that provoke desire, but can never, ever satisfy.

Thus, the only thing comparable to virtual reality is the shadowy experience of Hades. What produces the tantalizing torment of the unrepentant soul in this intermediate state is the tragic fact that the sinner has carried with him into death all his passions. But now the soul, disembodied like avatars on the Web, has no physical means by which those passions can be slaked.

While Fr. Jonathan Tobias is nothing new, this Web-based, computer-driven virtual world is something different, and something unique on history's stage. What has happened now is another revolution in the development of virtual reality. What has changed now is the very relationship of man with his technology and his tools. From Adam until now, man has used tools for art. He has used them to modify his immediate environment, but still he interacted with the things of the created world. He was abler at understanding time and the seasons, the pace of the fields, the husbandry needs of his animals, and the duties and pleasures of love with his family, friends, and society. He could recite poetry. He could sing and play instruments. He knew how to laugh with the spheres. He was able to see through the transparencies of his culture to the glories of Creation, and thus to understand the eternal and good attributes of the Creator. Tools were below him. Now they are above, and could end up becoming his master.

The Tower of Babel

Today, our hyper-technological and tradition-denying culture is so opaque that man has shut his eyes to these glories. And nowhere is that opacity so pronounced as in the pseudoculture of virtual reality. If ever the Tower of Babel were raised again, it would be here, in cyberspace.

In practice, the problem of a Christian's approach to virtual reality is solved, partially, by the fact that it shares well-known similarities with other forms of fantasia. Wherever there is lust, or anger, or greed, or gluttony, the images that incite these passions should be avoided or turned off: "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out" (Matthew 5:29). The virtuality of an act should be understood as old-fashioned fantasia. That is why the gunning down of virtual people in so-called "first-person shooter" games is so troubling.

The Internet may be used as a tool, but the virtual reality entertainments and communities should be given a miss. In thinking about whether Orthodox Christians should use any form of virtual reality or fantasia, the burden of proof really rests on the side of use, not avoidance. One should not begin his ethical thinking with the question, "What is wrong with my having a libertine MySpace page, or shooting Nazis in Wolfenstein?" Instead, he should begin with the question, "What is right with it? Does it deepen my love for God and my fellow man? Does it help me control my passions, and does it open my heart more to receiving grace?"

There are important distinctions to be made in this realm as well. The Internet is here to stay. It has become an important, and probably irreplaceable, means of communication. By all means the Web should be used as a tool, just as a shovel or a screwdriver could be used as a tool. It should be used for communication and for learning. It can be used as an upgraded telephone, photocopier, and e-book rolled into a single application. This the Internet can do, and can probably do better than many other tools.

But the Web should not be walked into, which, psychologically, is what the brain believes is happening in the better-equipped virtual worlds. Even small insects know enough to avoid walking into webs in the real world. The computer should be below man, not above. Virtual reality, though, involves walking into and subordinating oneself to what should have been only a tool. And when a tool is suspended from above, like that 1968 virtual reality helmet at Harvard, it can become a Sword of Damocles.

Besides, you can't repent in Second Life, or in any alternative universe: you can repent only in this one. And in Second Life, the Sword of Damocles might fall at any moment. But no one, in the shadowy realm of virtuality, will ever know the difference.

The Very Rev. Jonathan Tobias is a priest of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese. He is married to Marsha Tobias and has two daughters, Marisa (at Malone College) and Alexis (at Blackburn Academy). He is the pastor of the St. John the Forerunner Church in East Pittsburgh, and is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Christ the Saviour Seminary in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Read the entire article on the Again Magazine website (new window will open).

Posted: 20-Nov-07



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