Imagine being able to teleport anywhere, change your appearance, ride a dragon, or build your own fantasy home. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook (now named “Meta”), recently announced the creation of “the metaverse,” an immersive virtual world in which you can do all these things. The term “metaverse” was coined in a 1990s novel titled Snow Crash which depicted a future where people entered a virtual world to escape a dystopian reality.
Zuckerberg’s vision is not new. Already there are immersive online video games like Fortnite and Roblox that have been around for years. However, entering the metaverse requires donning a virtual reality (VR) headset that covers the eyes with stereoscopic views that track as one turns their head. The result is the ability to immerse oneself in a virtual environment that is limited only by the imagination. The computer science department at Calvin University has a VR setup and some of our students have created virtual worlds, including a virtual model of Calvin’s campus with a lemonade stand equipped with a cannon that shoots lemons.
The metaverse uses avatars to represent users, allowing one to choose how they appear – perhaps taller or more striking than we actually are, or as a man, woman, robot, or a unicorn if we wish. Zuckerberg claims the metaverse enables a “deep feeling of presence,” and further enhancements to VR promise even more fidelity. Besides hand tracking there are other devices such as omnidirectional treadmills that enable you to walk, run, or jump in a virtual world. Others are developing bodysuits which enable you to feel sensations as you interact within a virtual world.
The metaverse can be used to work, play, shop, and socialize, enabling people to meet in ways that are far more immersive than Zoom. Businesses can use the metaverse to market and advertise their goods. Schools could use VR to take their students on a journey inside a blood vessel or to the bottom of the ocean (reminiscent of the trips Miss Frizzle took her students on in the The Magic School Bus).
New technologies like VR are often either celebrated or criticized. But thoughtfully engaging new technologies requires much more nuance. Virtual reality is part of the technical possibilities in creation; although they can be misdirected, they should not be dismissed out of hand.
For example, VR is currently being used to train pilots and surgeons in virtual environments where mistakes do not have real world consequences. Children can be educated about how to stay safe in a bushfire or flood situation. Architects can use VR to evaluate new buildings in a way that is not possible with traditional blueprints. Scientists and engineers can use VR to visualize complex systems for insights and understanding. VR enables delightful entertainment possibilities such as viewing a movie while slipping into a VR world based on the movie or providing engaging fitness applications. It also enables virtual travel experiences and expands the horizons for those who are isolated or housebound. VR shows promise in medical applications to help those dealing with chronic pain, as a therapeutic device, to help conquer phobias, planning complex surgical procedures, and in radiology.
But there are many legitimate concerns. How will VR impact our sense of identity as we present ourselves in any form we wish? How will companies monetize VR and what will be the privacy implications? What ways might VR cause harm? Will it bring perverse and violent games, pornography, addictions, loneliness, and confuse the virtual and the real? Many have worshipped using Zoom during the pandemic but what are the implications for church in VR? What will be lost if universities move into the metaverse to become “metauniversties”?
VR comes with additional philosophical and theological concerns. As people become more immersed in VR will they become more susceptible to a new kind of Gnosticism that undervalues the importance of ordinary embodied human existence? The farmer and novelist Wendell Berry laments that “our bodies have become marginal… because we have less and less use for them… we use them only as shipping cartons to transport our brains and our few employable muscles back and forth to work.”1 The Christian philosopher Craig Gay reminds us that “Christ’s incarnation is an extraordinary endorsement of ordinary embodied being.”2
VR is part of the creational possibilities that we are called to responsibly unfold. We have seen that recent technologies like social networking can come with significant consequences when pursued for their own sake or strictly to maximize profits. The question is, can we develop VR responsibly and in a normative way, unfolding its good possibilities while avoiding harmful distortions? Guiding such a development will demand that it not be left in the hands of computer scientists and profit-driven corporations alone; it will require the expertise of psychologists, philosophers, artists, social scientists — and the contributions and insights of thoughtful Christians.
An earlier version of this article was originally published in Christian Courier.