The Heresy of Disembodiment: Part One

The Heresy of Disembodiment: Part One

We escape to the internet for mindless consumption and with the goal to recreate

Matt Delaughter

   While watching Mark Zuckerberg preach about the wonders of the coming Metaverse, I was reminded of my favorite chapter in G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics, titled: On Mr. Rudyard Kipling And Making The World Small. Chesterton explains that Kipling is a world traveler and wanderer and sees that a final attachment to community or cause would indeed be tragic. The heresy he believes is that because he wanders, he knows the world with greater depth than those stuck in locality.

Chesterton writes: "It is inspiritiating without doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand of China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets."

   Zuckerberg in his recent presentation on the Metaverse presents an embodied internet that will succeed the mobile internet. He gives many examples of how this will play out from your own home environment, to gaming, and to work. Zuckerberg explains that in the Metaverse when he sends a video to his parents it will be like they are in the moment instead of peering through a window. And this is what Zuckerberg is trying to provide, what he calls a more immersive experience of the internet. Zuckerberg says, “Screens just can’t convey the full range of human expression and connection. They cannot deliver that deep feeling of presence. But the next version of internet can.” Zuckerberg even makes bold claims that through the Metaverse that we will create worlds that are just as convincing as the one we are in.

   Now, I do not want to appear as some Luddite, I think a Metaverse meeting with missionaries across the world could be great. Yet, as I will explain below I think there will be good reasons for Christians to carefully consider how they will interact with the future age of the internet. I believe Zuckerberg to be presenting the same “heresy” that Chesterton critiques in Kipling. The heresy is that there is more to gain through mobility via the immersive internet, while I think there is actually more wisdom to be gained when we look at how God has made us, particularly that God has made us physically and placed us in a capacity that often requires us to be local.

   In God’s creation of man, he confined man. He confined him in flesh. He confined him in time. He confined him in space. Now, surely one can daydream and fantasize about wonderful realities, but we cannot escape our creatureliness. We can steward our time well, but we cannot add an hour to the day. We can travel to and fro, but as we travel we always find ourselves in a current location. This is how God has created us and he has said that it is good. Given Zuckerberg’s claims and given how God has created mankind, I want to consider three ways that Christians should discerningly think about the Metaverse.

1. The Power of Medium

   One of the greatest failures I think Christians manifest with the newest advances of technology is asking the question, “Will the medium of this technology promote and cultivate what is good?” Christians often do not ask this question because they naively assume that if it does not explicitly lead them into sin then they are free to engage with any new form of technology.

   Cal Newport offers a better way in his book Digital Minimalism. He puts forth the Amish as an example. Newport explains that the Amish are often misunderstood as rejecting all forms of modern technology. Newport explains that rather the Amish experiment with modern forms of technology while asking the question how it may compromise virtues that they think are valuable to their community. Whether it be phones or automobiles, Newport states that the Amish ask these types of questions: “Is this going to be helpful or is it going to be detrimental?” or “Is it going to bolster our life together, as a community, or is it going to somehow tear it down?”

   It seems the Amish are aware of what Neil Postman illustrates through his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, that the medium by which information is dispensed and engaged has a cultural shaping effect. Postman demonstrates that a typographical culture requires rationality because ideas must be orderly and logically arranged on a page to be read and critiqued by others. Postman gives other examples of how communication has been affected by telegraphy and even small pamphlets, but much of his focus is on the great culture shaping effect that the television brought to communication. Postman wants his readers to understand that most of this cultural effect happened not by what was being said, but how it was being presented, which was not through reasoned presentations in a newspaper or a book but through images on a screen.

   Postman helpfully sets the stage of the effect when he says,

Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to ‘join them tomorrow.’ What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters invitation because we know the ‘news’ is not to be taken seriously, that it is all fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this – the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials – all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education.

   Postman wrote such insight in 1985, but we can see how this is not only true of mainstream and local media but also of social media. We scroll to like and comment on things that range from humorous, to trivial, to quarrels filled with vitriol. We live in a medium of infinite access and we falsely believe we can observe and process it all like the omniscient God. The truth is the medium leaves us in a worse state because we are not God and we were not created with the bandwidth to consume such information. The addictive pursuit of such things has led us into folly, has made us quick-tempered, and has stripped us of our emotions, and we foolishly continue to indulge the medium comforting ourselves that God’s word does not prohibit such a medium. But the medium matters, it has shaped us, continues to shape us, and will shape us all the more through immersive technology, like the Metaverse.

2. Virtual Reality as Escapism

   I think Christians need to carefully consider these technologies because of the temptation it will present to escape the reality we live in every day. There are many ways in which we try to medicate the brokenness we have caused and experienced in this sinful world. Some of us turn to alcohol, some to food, and some to prescription drugs. But many of us will try to escape the realities of this world by getting that dopamine hit from social media. Not only can we endlessly scroll and be entertained, but we can create realities of ourselves that simply are not true. We can be the mother, who posts the newest Christmas pictures of our happy family when the truth is your kids are rebellious and defiant and you actually yell and bribe in your parenting more than you would want your closest friends to know. This may not be your situation, but we all do this.

   We escape to the internet for mindless consumption and with the goal to recreate who we are. The digital world offers a sense of control and power when we don’t feel like we possess that in the physical world. And the reality is that we end up pursuing that which is virtual, when we need to pursue that which is virtuous. I don’t mean to create a false dichotomy, surely virtue can be gained through what is virtual. However, we all know, or at least we should, that there is greater virtue in being a good mother than seeking to appear as one on Instagram, or that there is greater virtue in serving our neighbors than building virtual civilizations that may display creativity, but will hardly touch the needs of our own communities.

   In all this escapism and promises of power in the virtual world, we find out that there is still something we cannot escape or exert power over by merely immersing ourselves into the internet. Even when you escape “reality” you can still sin in “virtual reality.” I have always been amazed to see how some people who were never quarrelsome are quick to argue in a vicious manner on social media. And I would say this is a byproduct of a culture of detached communication. The detachment emboldens what is usually tempered in close quarters. Yet, though the words that are being typed out may not be the same as those verbally expressed, they do still possess the potential for sin and holiness.

And this is something that must be considered about the Metaverse, is that whoever we try to be there, even if it is a robot avatar, we will still have the capacity to sin and be sinned against.

3. Immersive Experiences

   Zuckerberg promises through the Metaverse to provide more immersive responses, whether it is playing cards with your friends’ avatars, looking out your kitchen window to a landscape you provided, or seeing everyone on your team at work sit at the table with you, while you are really just sitting alone at your dining room table.

   I’m sure these promises for immersive experiences will in no doubt be engaging in ways that we have never experienced, but I am also very confident that they will overpromise and underdeliver. I say this because there is nothing more immersive than the world God created us to inhabit and cultivate. God created the world and said that it was good, and indeed it is. The world lays upon us a weight of the goodness of God. From the laughter of children, to the exertion of muscles, to the sound of music, to the falling of the leaves, to the dirt on our hands, to the warmth of food in our mouths, to the smell of coffee on a cool morning, to the intimate love of a spouse, and to other heavy realities of God’s daily goodness, the world is far more immersive than anything man can provide. The sacred works of creation are meant to draw us to worship, which makes it all the more a tragedy for them to be perverted or neglected.

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