So I decided to try virtual reality for a while. I have been reading about the influence technology has on religion, so I thought a trip to Wikitude would be instructive. Now I don’t want to sling lingo like I’m some sort of real techie, but Wikitude is an app that shows the artificial worlds of virtual reality in your immediate environment. Many of us live our day-to-day lives without realizing that we are surrounded by powerful, invisible beings who can only be seen through electronic eyes. We have given our physical world an imaginary overlay that may turn out to be more real than reality itself. So I clicked on Wikitude and took a peek around my office on Third Avenue. Wikitude shows those things that I would have called “dialogue boxes” as a kid, but that now stand in for overlays against any mapped reality. In Manhattan there are many, many of them. I clicked on the one nearest my finger. It read, “A monster is destroying the city.” Like it read my mind.
In some ways I never got over the naïve realism I grew up believing. I first read about avatars in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Back then the idea of virtual worlds was still pretty new, and although Norman Spinrad and William Gibson had played with the idea earlier, the Snow Crash version is what stayed in my head. Avatars, I knew from my research on ancient religions, came from very early Indian belief. In what we now casually call “Hinduism,” some believed that gods came down and walked among us as avatars. Christians would later call this “incarnation.” In virtual reality, we are the gods and we descend into the world of human making as embodied electronic versions of ourselves. The idea, however, goes back to one of the most ancient religions in the world.
I’m not sure I feel safe in this virtual world I’ve discovered. I was relieved when I clicked on Wikitude the next day to find the menacing monster nowhere in sight. But is it really gone? The physical world has no shortage of ways to frighten the very sensibilities out of us. Many of them go by the name of religion. In this world, I can’t just click off the screen and be safe. It used to be that our simple, domed world had a divine bowl above it with a loving, if often very stern, parent watching over us. Now we have become that god, creating monsters and worlds to house them. Maybe that is the best answer to theodicy yet. When we create virtual worlds, we always include evil in the picture. Perhaps it has always been thus with the gods.