The other day I was enjoying some time playing video games with my children. We were using a virtual reality device: a mask with an internal screen which visually simulated being in a different place than our living room. It was sometimes a bit nauseating as my eyes told me I was moving while my body insisted that I wasn’t. You hold two controllers in your hands so that the computer knows where your hands are, and you can virtually interact with the game world.
It was actually quite a lot of fun, except for one thing: being completely unaware of what was actually around me. All I could see was the game, and nothing else. That was fine, until I reached for something in the virtual game and my hand slamed into my very real coffee table, which I had forgotten was just a few feet in front of me. That hurt.
That’s really the human condition in our age of advanced technology, online interactions, and social media. Much of what we experience is filtered through a screen of digital separation. Our senses are veiled by blue-light saturated simulacra in an effort to pile more information, interaction, and involvement into the short space of our daily lives. And then sometimes we bump into reality.
The question I end up asking is: “Is this necessarily less valuable than a living more or less unplugged from all the technological aspects of modern life?”
And I don’t really know. Certainly there is potential for life in the digital world to be shallow, unfulfilling, and trite. But is it not also possible to glean a satisfying measure of truth and humanity from using these products of our own ingenuity? Do the feelings evoked from text-based communication or pixel-formed images have less value because of the media through which they are shared? If so, then what of the books I read or the art on my walls? Are the prayers I pray cheapened by being recorded and streamed on YouTube?
I would think not. But then where is the line drawn? What defines “real”? Is an hour spent having coffee with one friend more or less real than two hours talking with another friend over the internet? Is the fun I had playing in virtual reality more or less real than the pain of whacking my hand off the coffee table?
Some would suggest it’s about balance: equal attention to both the digital and the physical. But then what about those who have no digital life, or those who spend most of their time online? Is there a lack of fulfillment in one or the other? Is one living less of a life? Can anyone reasonably stand in judgement of such a thing?
It’s a matter that is on my mind a lot lately. With COVID running rampant again, and my being forced to retreat more and more into electronic interaction with the world (as many of us are having to do), I puzzle over how what I do now compares to what I did before all this mess.
And I don’t have an answer, though I often feel like I should.