Stand-in Line

Pop culture borrows from religion without knowing it.  Or maybe it’s just that religion has become so irrelevant that people no longer care.  Whichever may be the case, those who contribute to pop culture have a rich treasury from which to take withdrawals.  This occurred to me while waiting for a bus into New York.  Many people don’t want to stand in line (who does, really?).  In the Park-n-Ride subculture, you may leave an avatar in your place.  It’s probably not called an avatar, but since there’s nobody here to ask, I’m going to use the pop culture name.  You put your bag on the pavement, marking your place and then go sit in your car.  Since I’m going to be sitting in a big car for the next two hours, I prefer to stand outside.

The idea of an avatar is mediated to most people through either computer language or the movie.  I first encountered the term in the former sense in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  I was an internet neophyte and had trouble conceiving a virtual world in those days.  Some time later came the latter.  James Cameron’s film embodied the idea—linked through software, the tired hardware of physical bodies could be given new life.  In some senses it was an even better life.  Now everyone knows what an avatar is.  Perhaps except that the idea is native to Hinduism.

Hinduism was never an organized, intentional religion such as Christianity.  It is rather a wide array of traditional beliefs that, in the light of missionary activity, had to be given a name.  There are many gods in Hinduism, and when a deity descends to earth s/he appears in a form recognizable to humans—an avatar.  Not being an Indologist, my understanding of the concept is very basic, but it’s enough to know that this religious idea found a role in pop culture first through computer representations of human beings.  We had flattered ourselves with being gods, since we had created a virtual world.  A world we couldn’t physically enter.  Avatars were, therefore, how we wanted others to experience us.  Snow Crash is peopled with all kinds of representations.  The internet today, nearly 30 years on, has many more.  After all, there are many gods.

I glance at my watch.  The bus should be here any minute now.  When it enters the lot I’ll see the deities behind these canvas and leather avatars.  They’ll be less impressive than I’ve imagined them, I’m sure.  And although we’ve created virtual reality, I still have to get on a physical bus to go to virtual work.

Credulity

So I went to see The Incredibles 2. Like the first movie, it deals with the complexities of family life amid the feelings of inadequacy when people are kept from their full potential. The idea of humans being enslaved by their screens seemed real enough. If you’ve ever tried to walk through Manhattan in a hurry you know that one of the clearest dangers is the pedestrian staring at his or her phone. People used to come to New York to see the scenery. Now you can get the full experience all online. There’s little doubt that we do need to be saved from our screens. Meet virtual reality. After only one encounter you can drop the “virtual.” Ironically, we were all sitting in a theater looking at a great big screen.

What was even more interesting was the fact that the film began with an apology for taking so long to make a sequel. An actual apology. As if no movie ever could, or should stand on its own. It’s common knowledge that sequels seldom live up to the originals. Interestingly, the villain in the movie states that people will always choose convenience over quality. That much is certain, and in an ironic way it applies to the film in which it’s uttered. I don’t believe in the crisis for creativity. It’s still out there. Original ideas are endemic to human nature. Ideas that bring in lots of money are more rare, and so we rely on the sequel. Sure things.

Publishers play this same game. Books that are completely new ideas frequently find their way from editors’ slush piles to their rejection piles. Publishers want something similar to what they’ve done before. Even better, something similar to something that sold well last time. The odds, in a capitalistic society, are stacked against creativity. It’s money that’s important, not originality. Yes, there have been books written extolling the wonders—virtues even—of originality. Such books are more easily published if they’re written by somebody already famous. So here was the dilemma in the theater: enjoy the movie or accept the message of the movie? The rare days I’m away from the screen, I’m old enough to admit, I don’t really crave it. When I come back in the door, however, the first thing I do is login to see if I’ve missed anything. Screens can lead to a strange uniformity. As long as we’re willing to pay for it, nobody will complain.

Virtually Divine

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.

Reality or not?