Our Future

There was an interesting article in last Sunday’s New York Time’s Magazine dealing with virtual reality and our probable decline into fantasy worlds. Virtual reality is becoming so good and the machine-brain interface so sophisticated that in a few short years the connection will be so complete that a person could conceivably live his or her entire life in a virtual world. For many people, this will be preferable. Just thank of a mother who loses a child being able to continue “living with that child.”
Once I get a few moments, I want to deal with this more completely (or, as completely as comments on a newspaper article permit). As the Church, as a representative of the Church, we will have to deal with people who lose the ability to form and maintain tactile relationships. We also will have to deal with people who would rather live in fantasy than in the real world (not including those who have diagnosed mental disorders).
What impact will this have on the Church and our mission? Think of the Church as a bastion of people who desire to live tactilely with one another. We will be the “new” Amish. Think of the Church as a devise/place that teaches people how to once again live in physical community. The Church will have to help people re-learn the art of dealing with other “real” people not dependent on pre-programmed outcomes.
A friend of mine at Kent State (my former place of learning and employment) finished her PhD a couple years ago. Her dissertation topic dealt with brain patterning/synaptic pathway development and pedagogy. One of her hypotheses dealt with what students are really saying when they complain, “I’m bored. I’m bored. I’m bored!” She suspects that over the last 20 years (post-MTV) that younger peoples’ brain development has actually changed – synaptic pathways and brain patterning has shifted to such a degree that younger generations actually acquire and assimilate knowledge differently than in times past. She suggests that when students in classrooms say, “I am bored,” what is actually occurring is that they cannot receive the information being dispensed by an instructor because of these changes in brain development. Our prevailing pedagogies rely on a certain commonly understood “pattern,” but these students have brains that are simply wired differently. She is working with professors at Kent State to develop new pedagogies that may enable younger people to “not be bored.” This has nothing to do with just including “power-point” presentations or adapting to an “entertainment” model for teaching. These are fundamental changes that require a fundamental rethinking of how we give and receive information.
What does this suggest concerning a person’s connection with God, with other believers, with the “doing” of Church?
In addition, I recently read another article concerning the shift in learning patterns. We have entered the beginnings of an “image-based” system of learning. This is more than “I am a visual learner” or an “aerial learner.” This is acquiring information and making sense of that information strictly through imagery, not words. We could talk about being “image-illiterate/literate” in the same was we might talk about being “word-illiterate/literate.”
What does this suggest for Church, for liturgy, for preaching, for discipleship? I cannot help but think of a return to High-Church liturgy that includes all the senses and where the images we see convey meaning going back thousands of years. Images don’t just represent something, but they _are_ meaning. How might the Orthodox deal with this in the use of icons? What would an iconoclast say? I cannot help thinking about stained-glass which was used to teach the word-illiterate masses. The Church that depends entirely on the “word” may find itself using an educational pedagogy, a spiritual-pedagogy that just doesn’t work anymore.
Once the machine-brain interface becomes complete, the virtual world can enable us to “smell” and “hear” and “feel” and “experience” anything. Yet, it will not be real. How important will the “real” be in the next one hundred years? Honestly, what will “real” even mean? What will an “experience” of God suggest?
Throw in post-modernism and we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of explaining to do!