Sunday, June 28, 2009

Technology and God-talk in 'Virtuality'

In the dearth of summer television, I was admittedly pleased to discover that Battlestar Galactica creator Ron Moore had penned the Fox pilot/movie Virtuality, a story ostensibly about a 10 year manned space mission to a distant star in hopes of finding another habitable planet—all of which is beamed back to earth as a reality television show. Moore's stories on BSG often dealt with themes and issues that brought God-talk into open spaces, and not surprisingly, Virtuality does so as well.

Not that I don’t have mixed feelings about the two-hour movie. Or was it a pilot? Apparently, it was meant to be the pilot for a series that may or may not get made. Which might explain why I have mixed feelings about the thing. I had a hard time keeping track of who-was-who in the large ensemble of characters—or caring about what happened to them. As a television series, I’m guessing we would have time to learn about and care for the characters, but in a single two-hour block, I found that difficult. In addition, it felt a bit stretched thin (which might be attributed again to the number of characters and thus stories-within-the-story), with too much happening within a short time frame.

But, I must admit, I agree with those who’ve noted that Virtuality sports an interesting premise and explores our relationship with technology, how that affects our relationship with each other (and visa-versa), and the nature of reality in a way I find thought provoking and unique. The story touches on and delves into a plethora of issues and themes associated with that exploration (maybe too many), but I must admit I was particularly captivated by the use of virtual technology.

The only real privacy the crew has is through the use of virtual technology head sets which allow them to program and design their own modules of virtual realities. For example, the ship’s captain rides through a world set in during the Civil War while the ship’s doctor uses his module to paint canvases of vast vistas. The second-in-command (who is in a wheelchair) is mountaineering in his module while the ship’s computer specialist plays out a rock-singer super-spy story.

(Warning: major spoilers and disturbing scene descriptions ahead)

But something’s gone wrong with the program. A man—which the ship’s master computer (Jane, an obvious nod to HAL in Space Odyssey 2001) apparently can’t detect—appears and commits several very violent acts in the different modules. He first appears in the Captain’s module, shooting and killing the Captain even after he has frozen his program. (Death in virtual worlds does not result in death in the real world, though individuals will feel the physical sensations of the event as if they are real). The intruder appears a second time in another module in which he shoots and kills the wife of the ship’s psych officer and the Captain (again), who are having virtual sex. But I found the third time the man appears to be the most disturbing: he assaults and rapes the ship’s computer specialist. While she is not physically harmed, she experiences the physical pain and emotional trauma of a rape. For her, the experience and memory of it were as if it actually happened.

While these scenes (particularly the last one) are disturbing, they aren’t used gratuitously but instead serve several very relevant and thought-provoking functions. For example, it causes us to consider the idea that what occurs in virtual realities—and if we push the image, we could include what occurs in our thoughts and minds as well—has serious and very real effects on us individually as well the relationships we share in the world around us. In particular, by juxtaposing the virtual sexual affair and the disturbing and abhorrent rape, the movie confronts us with the seriousness of former. Initially, both individuals treat their liaisons much more lightly than if it was an actual physical affair, but as we discover later, it has affected their relationship (and the relationships they have with others) in the real world. By juxtaposing it with profound effects of the sexual assault on the computer specialist, the effects and consequences of the virtual affair are given added weight and seriousness.

These scenes and their aftermath also cause us to examine our own interaction with and how we are affected by this type of technology in our world. While we don’t have the kind of technology in the movie, we do have access to virtual worlds and communities every day, like forums, blogs, and even services like Twitter. Then there are online games of intricately designed worlds in which players interact with their own created avatars and characters. How does all this affect who we are and the relationships around us? This film suggests that we should not approach this technology lightly but warns us that how we use it will have ramifications—some of which may affect us and the people and world around us in very deep and profound ways.

My husband recently observed that it’s to be expected that we see stories like this—ones that examine our relationship to technology and how it affects us and our relationship to each other and the world—as we are in the midst of a technological revolution that includes the development and existence of virtual realities. Stories like these are reflections of our need to explore and figure out what it means to be human in the midst of this kind of technology.

And that kind of exploration is full of potential God-talk as well—and this film hints at some of that. At one point, the Captain—who repeatedly and cryptically indicates that there’s more to experiences of the crew members than they realize—quotes lines from the spiritual hymn Amazing Grace (“I once was lost, but now am found/Was blind, but now I see”) and a few moments later Jesus’ words, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). For the Captain, the experiences in virtual reality are causing him to reexamine reality itself—leading him to question who he is, his purpose, the nature (or illusion) of the world and people around him, etc. His use of spiritual language may not actually be referring to God or Jesus, but I find it appropriate as this kind of questioning ultimately invites us to consider the existence and nature of God.

In addition, I can’t help but consider how the crew members’ experiences in virtual reality reflect the reality of how our thoughts, emotions, behavior and souls are dramatically affected by each other. What we think about will drive our emotions and behavior. One of my favorite parts of Paul’s writing comes in his letter to the Romans in which he says: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” I also like how Mark Scandrette talks about the word "repent" in Soul Graffiti:
The word literally means "rethink your thinking" or "reimagine" your life in view of new alternatives. The instruction to "repent" or "reimagine" is meant to shock and arrest, to incite us to rethink our goals and priorities, to call into question our previous ways and awaken us to new possibilities. We reimagine our lives by allowing the Creator to examine our thoughts, attitudes, motives, and behavior.
The way we think has a great deal of power over our emotions and behavior. And I really appreciate how this story’s examination of our relationship with technology explores also the power of our thoughts on our actions and the world around us. Stories like this give us a great opportunity to ponder just why we think and act the way we do—and when we need to “rethink our thinking” and “reimagine” our lives.

And I must admit, I am thrilled that the form this story comes in is science-fiction. I’ve been observing for awhile now that this genre seems to be the preferred or safe one in which to explore themes related to faith and God. While the story has its faults, it does use an interesting premise and ideas to nudge us to examine our ourselves—and brings God-talk into open spaces along the way.

(Images: FOX via IMDB)

1 comment:

Kyle Avent said...

You have an excellent message. Thank you for addressing the worship of the lustful passions of the world. These aren't the things Jesus wanted us to think about, because He wants us to have hearts that seek His.