It has long been claimed that pornography drives technology. This claim is over-stated, no doubt, but what’s clear is that pornography very quickly and cleverly takes advantage of new communication technologies. As one commentator says, “If we invent a machine, the first thing we are going to do—after making a profit—is use it to watch porn.” If you don’t believe me, just do a little research into VHS, DVD, internet, iPhone, and a host of other innovations that were created for any number of purposes but which very quickly became major conduits for porn.
Over the past few years I have had many opportunities to speak on the twin subjects of pornography and technology, and when I do so I am always sure to point out that we are exceptional at assessing the opportunities in new technologies but woeful at assessing the risks. The rise of the internet provides a ready example. When the internet first came along, we all dutifully signed up for accounts and began to explore this new medium. We surfed and chatted and downloaded and shopped. It was only a few years later that we realized that along the way an entire generation had gotten hooked on porn. It’s obvious now—what else was ever going to happen? But somehow nobody saw it coming. We saw the opportunities but missed a major risk.
When I speak on these topics I typically conclude with a Q&A session, and of all the questions I’ve been asked, this may be the most common: What’s next? What’s the next big technology for which we are likely to embrace the obvious benefits and only learn about the risks after the damage has already been done?
My answer has varied a little bit over the years, but I’ve recently been narrowing my focus to virtual reality (VR). The internet gave us the notion of cyberspace, a place that exists outside of real space, but the effort was only partly successful because computers and smartphones can deliver only flat, two-dimensional experiences. Surfing the web or talking to family via Skype has never been like being transported to a different realm of existence. VR, though, promises the notion of a virtual reality that is in addition to or alongside real reality. And it may have the sophistication to actually deliver on its promise.
Today, most people associate VR with gaming, but that is likely to change in the near future. Those who are working on the next generation of VR have far greater ambitions than providing mere entertainment. Their vision is to have VR transform the way humans connect with one another. They mean to not only mimic the best of face-to-face connection, but perhaps even improve upon it. According to one expert, the great ambition is to deliver presence, empathy, and intimacy in a virtual space. It is to deliver something far superior to the internet and perhaps even superior to real life.
Presence, empathy, and intimacy represent a grand ambition. What is the ultimate human expression of presence, empathy, and intimacy? Sex, of course. So it comes as no surprise that VR is already moving in that direction and, according to some, even the early results are groundbreaking. One researcher says it is like nothing he’s ever experienced. It is so real, so personal, and so sensory that the brain accepts it as real. The brain fills in the gaps to such a degree that it can be felt. You are no longer a voyeur watching acts unfold on a screen but a participant actually joining in. Just like video porn proved a quantum leap over magazines, VR porn seems likely to leave mere videos as a quaint relic of the past. If standard on-screen porn is Aspirin, VR porn is fentanyl in all its power and addictiveness.
So let’s consider this our warning. VR is coming. It’s already here, in fact, but only in small ways. These are just the skirmishers, but the full army is close behind. We are possibly just a couple of years away from VR being the next big thing which means we could be just a decade away from it being the next thing we can’t imagine living without. As it comes, let’s be wary. Let’s be wise. Let’s get out ahead of it. Let’s make sure that this time around we properly assess its benefits and its drawbacks before we hand ourselves over to it. And let’s be sure to admit—as Christians, at least—that there is really no such thing as virtual reality. We only ever live in real reality where God commands we live as people who have been set apart by God, to God, and for the glory of God.