The Pope has recently warned about the dangers of an increasingly virtualized world, arguing that new media technologies and the proliferation of images threaten the search for truth. Benedict XVI cautioned that the image can “become independent of reality; it can give life to a virtual world, with several consequences, the first of which is the risk of indifference to truth.”
Benedict’s warning is itself paradoxical and warrants some contextual analysis. The papacy has advanced its own version of the biblical virtual world for millennia suggesting that its allegorical and mythological stories be taken as truth. This evangelism does not so much advocate “indifference to truth” but it works to supplant contrary truths with its own version. Indeed, any visit to a Catholic church will present one with a vivid and compelling array of imagery tailored to the particular brand of truth they proselytize. In effect, these set dressings are visual entry points — hyperlinks — to the virtual world of the Catholic faith.
“In fact,” the Pope said, “the new technologies, together with the progress they entail, can make the true and the false interchangeable; they can induce one to confuse the real with the virtual.” Again, the Pontiff is arguing that open source truth, i.e. the global web of digital culture & hypermedia, is somehow less real than the truth put forth by Rome, the Bible, and the documents of Jesus Christ.
What the papacy is really engaging in is not so much the battle for truth but a global marketing effort to advance the membership in its uniquely Catholic virtual world. The fact that theirs runs on mindshare instead of servers is incidental to the proposition that users of their platform will see the true world rather than those pushed by Islam, or Google, or Blizzard Games.
To the Pontiff’s credit, he admonishes that “the recording of an event, joyful or sad, can be consumed as a spectacle and not as an occasion for reflection. The search for the paths of an authentic promotion of man then takes second place, because the event is presented primarily to arouse emotions.” Sensationalism and image overload do tend to reinforce a habituation to media consumption while stripping away some of the meaning and empathy, desensitizing the viewing masses to the real consequences and emotional realities of what they consume. This detachment from the phenomenal world is an underlying challenge of visual technologies like virtual worlds and augmented reality threatening to lure us into the spectacle without reinforcing our humanity.
Arguably, Benedict XVI is equally concerned with the competitive advantage afforded by visible language, hypermedia, and virtual worlds. As Terence McKenna once suggested, “the starships of the future, in other words the vehicles of the future, which will explore the high frontier of the unknown will be syntactical. The engineers of the future will be poets. This is what virtual reality holds out to us — the possibility of walking in to the constructs of the imagination.”
This syntactical vehicle, once mastered in the texts of the Bible and the sermons of the pulpit, has evolved to draw in the many visual worlds replicating and multiplying out through the cloud. In a world of democratized and incredibly empowering digital tools, innumerable variations on “reality” compete for mindshare through virtual, visual, textual, chemical and mythical pathways. When Benedict cautions that image can become independent of reality we have to ask, which reality?