A Virtual Reality World

by Rick Shrader

Men seek stronger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense . . . They try to stab their nerves to life, as if it were with knives of the priest of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares.         G.K. Chesterton

The February 8, 1993 issue of Time magazine introduced us to ‘‘Cyberpunk.’’ It is ‘‘technology with an attitude.’’ The word describes the growing world of ‘‘Virtual Reality,’’ the fusing of humans and machines. ‘‘Cyber’’ is taken from ‘‘Cybernetics’’ and ‘‘Punk’’ from the idea of an antisocial hoodlum. This technological underworld is a labyrinth of hypertext such as cyberspace, interzones, synaesthesia, cryonics, dystopia and rants. Thousands of otherwise bored souls are exploring worlds that only exist in the mind and a computer link.  According to Time, during WW II, Norbert Wiener of M.I.T. designed systems for antiaircraft guns and found that the critical component in a control system is a feedback loop that gives a controller information on the results of its actions. He called this type of study ‘‘Cybernetics’’ (from the Greek word kubernetes), the science of communication and control theory.

In the New Testament, kubernetes means the ‘‘master’’ (Acts 27:11) or the ‘‘shipmaster’’ (Rev 18:17). It was a person linked together with the rudder (from a word signifying hardness) that controlled the ship. Whereas I might call this device a ‘‘steering wheel,’’ my kids would most likely call it a ‘‘joystick.’’

The concept of virtual reality grows out of cybernetics. It is the ability to contact and control a situation without actually being there and without actually suffering negative consequences for inappropriate action. As Neil Postman writes in his 1992 book Technopoly, ‘‘Putting on a set of miniature goggle-mounted screens, one may block out the real world and move through a simulated three-dimensional world which changes its components with every movement to one’s head.’’ Gene Veith, writing in his 1994 book Postmodern Times adds, ‘‘When this technology is perfected, we will be able to take part in multi-sensory fantasies, as if we were the main character in a science fiction movie. Some people are even looking forward to virtual reality body condoms which will offer pre-programmed sexual fantasies.’’ The fact is, according to Time, magazines already exist that are user guides to ‘‘everything from virtual reality and wetware to designer aphrodisiacs and techno-erotic paganism, promising to make cyberpunk’s rarefied perspective immediately accessible.’’

We should not be overly negative nor alarmists. There will also be amazing educational tools developed from this technology. Students may be able to travel to foreign lands or take a simple field trip without leaving the classroom. I may be able to go fly-fishing along a mountain stream but never leave the office. But human nature being what it is, the dangers will overshadow the benefits. That is why the market is already flooded with attractions to the flesh while the classroom sits empty. And I am not sure I am willing to give up the real thing for what is virtually real anyway. I can see my old professor Noel Smith, who wouldn’t drink coffee out of a paper cup and disdained clip-on ties, thanking the Lord that he ‘‘checked out’’ when he did!

We may, however, be witnessing the inevitable outcome (coupled with the technological know-how) of a long infatuation with the unreal. My first trip to a theme park was to Disneyland. I loved it and always have. I could be Tom Sawyer riding a raft down the Mississippi, a star fighter in outer space or Pinocchio inside a giant whale. Now, almost every town has a mall which creates the idea of being outside while you are really inside. Some, like Minnesota’s Mall of America takes you virtually anywhere else you want to go. We can go to Mexico to eat Mexican food at Chi Chi’s or to the great outdoors to buy a fishing rod at Bass Pro Shop. We can even jump from dangerous heights to experience the sensation of falling to our death only to be yanked back to reality by a bungee cord. Of course, we may add to this the theater, television, video arcade and computer.

‘‘The problem,’’ says Veith, ‘‘comes when the mind-set of the malls and theme parks becomes confused with Christianity.’’ Witness, for example, Rev. Tommy Barnett, pastor of Phoenix First Assembly with its $500,000 special-effects system (copied from Bally’s casino in Las Vegas), as he ascends into the auditorium’s ceiling after finishing a Sunday sermon (Wall Street Journal, 12-11-90). Does such miraculous simulation make real or virtually real believers? Can we turn such faith on and off like a television set? Do we exit the game by exiting the auditorium? Robert Wenz in Room For God? writes, ‘‘The marketing church has led to dangerous application of church growth principles to the ‘now’ generation that demands instant gratification or at least instant feedback.’’ Exactly like being at the controls of the latest video game.

To gain our bearings we might download a bit of information from Webster. We might conclude, for example, that ‘‘virtual reality’’ is a bit of an oxymoron. Virtual is from the Latin virtus meaning ‘‘being in essence or effect but not in fact.’’ Virtu is a noun form describing an art lover ‘‘especially of a curios or antique nature.’’ Art, after all, is a representation but not a reality. Virtue is a derivative which means ‘‘conformity to a standard of right’’ but never attaining the real perfection. On the other hand, reality is from the Latin Res meaning fact. Real is to be ‘‘fixed, permanent, or unmovable.’’ It is ‘‘agreement between what a thing seems to be and what it is.’’ That is why we call a piece of land ‘‘real estate.’’ So what is virtual reality? It is unreal reality. Nonreality. Nonsense.

Christopher Meyer, a cyberpunk himself, said that cybernetics is ‘‘all data. It all takes up the same amount of space on disk, and a lot of it is just plain noise.’’ But we must remember that we all have a kubernetes, a pilot over our body and soul. Seneca said, ‘‘No man is free who is a slave to the flesh.’’ Hermes said of Christ that he is the ‘‘kubernetes ton somaton hemon,’’ the ‘‘Pilot of our souls.’’ That is not virtual reality but reality that is virtuous.