At my last haircut, the stylist relayed her excitement from her family’s recent experience of using a virtual reality (VR) headset. Now first, for any fellow elder Millennials out there (i.e., those older than their twenties) who feel out of touch with the times, a VR headset is a high-tech pair of goggles worn to augment a video game experience. These goggles allow the user to sense as if he were really acting in the video game’s environment, visually displayed through 3D graphics.
The stylist, a self-proclaimed avid outdoor enthusiast, relayed how her family played a fishing game and described her excitement at beholding the fish that she “caught.” Through the VR goggles, the (virtual) fish appeared in striking detail, and she commented on how good this technology would be for those who can’t or won’t leave their homes to venture into the outdoors. “Now you can fish without going fishing! Isn’t technology wonderful?”
The prospect of avoiding the many inconveniences or challenges inherent to a fishing trip while enjoying some experience of its thrills is indeed quite enticing. However, for anyone who has gone fishing, there is something intuitively dissatisfying with the notion that this activity can be substituted by a mere virtual representation.
But is this intuition a mere feeling and matter of personal taste or preference? Perhaps John enjoys virtual fishing, and Suzie prefers the actual experience. How can we determine if one is “better” than the other, especially when each activity offers something the other doesn’t?
These questions are actually quite significant because they extend far beyond the current example of a fishing experience or VR goggles. The modern technological revolution has undoubtedly proven itself to be just that – a revolution that has altered our day-to-day activities and lives to such a profound degree that we all must stop and evaluate what relationship we have to technology.
However, before we jump to the hasty conclusion that we ought to leave our modern world behind and join the farming communities of our Amish brothers and sisters (as enticing as this might seem at times), we should first seriously consider why technology has presented itself as an appealing alternative to authentic experiences.
As human persons with various senses, we are drawn towards what is beautiful, interesting, or curious. Therefore, we have a strong inclination towards images and, even more so, towards “moving images.” If you doubt how universal this is, just watch what happens when you turn on a television or place a smartphone in front of a small child. The child directs exclusive attention towards the screen.
Thus, video games and virtual experiences are “bedazzling,” but it also extends further. The experiences we have through a virtual game are pleasurable and thrill-inducing. The greatest promise they extend to us is that one can experience all of this without pain, suffering, or the arduous labor involved in other equivalent real-life pursuits. If we return to our fishing example, many unpleasant and challenging aspects are connected to planning and executing an actual fishing trip. I must wake up early, pack supplies, brave the elements (cold, heat, wind, rain), and of course, wait patiently as I attempt to catch the prize fish. Especially if I am new to fishing, I am unlikely to have great success when I first try this activity. If I want to succeed, it will require guidance, practice, and endurance.
From this perspective, the appeal of the video game alternative is immediately presented. It allows you to cut straight to the “fun” and thrill of catching a prize fish (not the “grass bass”) and avoid all the unpleasantries, hard work, or endurance you would otherwise have to face. It is a Utopian kind of promise which offers us a total escape from suffering, and as a society, we have largely accepted this tempting offer without reflection. At its core, the turn towards virtual reality as a substitute to reality is motivated by a fear of facing the anticipated suffering and ardor present in real-life activities.
But is technology delivering on its promise? Are we finding satisfaction or happiness by turning towards this fantasy, virtual world? It is clear we are not. An immense amount of literature is coming out that confirms how many are enslaved by technological addictions, haunted by loneliness and anxiety, and lacking mental focus or interior peace through all of the endless noise and flashing distractions. And if the rampant mental health crises of our times can present any litmus test, it is evident that many feel lost and alone alongside our technological era. To this point, according to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States among persons aged 10-34, arguably the demographic that is also the most connected to technology.
This dismal reflection illuminates that human persons are restless and hungry for a happiness that is evading them. And while technology may provide some momentary pleasure, relief, or escapism, it offers a form of satisfaction much the same as sugar does for our bodies. Sugar is easy to digest and makes us feel good, but by itself, it can never provide the nourishment our bodies need for real health. As we continue to indulge in it to excess, we quickly harm our bodies. Just so, we see that the thrills of virtual experiences bring us fleeting pleasures while leaving us dissatisfied in the long run.
What hope then can we offer to our disillusioned world? Here, I argue that the answer is not to shame those addicted to technology. Instead, it is inviting them to encounter the richness of reality. Let me adapt a line by Chesterton and say that “Reality has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
The fact is that actual activities are arduous and inevitably involve discomfort and trials. As the human body isn’t fulfilled by the “fluff” of sugar, we are also left dissatisfied by any superficial substitution for reality. A real fishing trip indeed involves difficulties, but satisfying rewards can be reaped precisely because of these hardships. On a real fishing trip, I am presented the opportunity to behold God’s gift of creation through nature, to contemplate in this serene environment, to connect through conversation with a buddy, and to act as a steward of creation through catching a real fish that I might prepare for dinner. These are all experiences that cannot be replicated through a virtual thrill ride.
Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us that the human person is not made for comfort but greatness. Likewise, St. John Paul II reminds us so well that the human person is made to be a gift for others, requiring the actual bodily presence and real communal activities with other persons.
This is the fundamental message that we must each recognize and pass on to our young people. Namely, the human person is designed to love and imitate God’s communal, personal, and incarnational love. Therefore, our hunger for happiness will only be satisfied when we courageously rise to this calling to live fully through authentic encounters with the world, others, and God. However, through this recognition, we will come to see that reality is always better than any virtual imitation, and we will arrive at the inevitable conclusion that virtual reality goggles can never rival the richness and joy of living in the real world given as a gift from God.
Recognizing the truth of what satisfies the human heart, St. John Paul II encouraged our young people in this way:
Do not be afraid, then, when love makes demands. Do not be afraid when love requires sacrifice. Do not be afraid of the Cross of Christ. The Cross is the Tree of Life. It is the source of all joy and peace. It was the only way for Jesus to reach resurrection and triumph. It is the only way for us to share in his life, now and forever.
Address of St. John Paul II to the young people of Auckland, New Zealand, 1986