Technology and entertainment are driving the consumer culture around our lives, and the result is that it’s making the material world thinner, more remote, and harder to appreciate.
A metaphor from the world of virtual reality illustrates the phenomenon. Most of you told us you have zero interest in VR goggles. In a recent survey of 7,000 of our readers about your media consumption, we asked about your interest levels in VR, between 0 (no interest) and 10 (strong interest). The average response came out to 1.84. More than 50% of you said 0.
Strapping a small screen over the head in something the size of safety goggles, however, is a popular trend gaining momentum in the gaming and entertainment worlds, leading to some curious stories.
Through New Eyes
At a networking conference in 2014, video game developer Lee Vermeulen demoed SteamVR goggles and then wrote about what he felt after a surreal fly through this trippy world of blue vectors, accompanied by a haunting ambient soundtrack.
“After the demo was over,” Vermeulen said, “I talked to the Valve employee for a few minutes afterwards about the technology. In the middle of a sentence, I had an incredibly weird moment of comparing real life to the VR. I understood that the demo was over, but it was as if a lower level part of my mind couldn’t exactly be sure. It gave me a very weird existential dread of my entire situation, and the only way I could get rid of that feeling was to walk around or touch things around me.”
As if to prove to himself the reality of the material world, Vermeulen walked around grabbing solid objects for physical proof.
“It was so incredibly weird that it got me worried about the tech in general — people have worried about us not being able to distinguish reality from entertainment,” he wrote. Television and film seems remote. VR seems too real. His fear: “It will cause us to not understand the difference between reality and the virtual world.”
Things of Earth
Vermeulen walking around clutching random, everyday things in order to recalibrate his brain is something VR developer Tobias van Schneider also experienced. As he decoupled from VR and re-entered the real world, he explained, it took about thirty minutes for his immediate senses to reorient. But hours later, a deeper sense lingered with him. “What stays is a strange feeling of sadness and disappointment when participating in the real world, usually on the same day. The sky seems less colorful and it just feels like I’m missing the ‘magic’ (for the lack of a better word).”
VR causes the things of earth to grow strangely colorless. Scientific studies now show that decoupling eyes and heads from the VR world and re-engaging the real world brings with it varying levels of dissociative experiences. For many users, VR makes life in the real world seem less real, more illusory. These dissociative effects manifest in a de-realization (the feeling that the world isn’t real) and de-personalization (the feeling that one’s self isn’t real). “People who’ve experienced de-personalization say that it feels like they’re outside of their bodies, watching themselves. De-realization makes a person’s surroundings feel strange and dream-like, in an unsettling way, despite how familiar they may be.”
We do not know yet whether these will be the long-term experiences of VR viewers or initial side effects plaguing our first experiences. What’s striking, though, is how the new wave of consumable goods (VR goggles) now has the power to make the real world around us seem more and more like a thinned out projected illusion.
Opiate of the Masses
These virtual reality stories are a metaphor of a phenomenon more broadly experienced by us all in a consumer-driven culture. We live in a materialistic society. Materialism is a drug. Materialism is the opiate of the people. It pacifies society on a mass scale, causing millions to ignore the God-sized hole in our souls for the latest trend that can get carried in a mall bag.
Like those goggles, materialistic consumerism does something to rewire our brains to how we perceive the material world in which we live. Offered an endless supply of options to make us better, more satisfied, and more fashionable people, the materialism of our day becomes more and more “soulless, aggressive, nonchalant, and nihilistic” (Milbank, 1).
Nowhere does this endless cycle seem to play out more broadly than in the local shopping mall, the theater of our marketing age. Things — consumable goods — which promised us so much at the mall, are made seasonal, becoming a hollowed out form of materialism, a de-material version eventually emptied of all true meaning — something to be thrown away, or stored and pushed out of sight, in our quest for newer and deeper gratification.
Secular materialism repackages the material world into consumable goods of fashion or personal care or fulfillment, and if it’s not held in check, it fosters a process which ultimately renders those material bits hollow. “Hence comes the irony that consumerism, which we often denounce as ‘materialism,’ is quite happy to reduce things to nothingness” (Smith, 100).
In the end, the materialism of the mall and the stunning visuals of VR, ironically make us unsatisfied with the material world.
God’s Material Theatre
In the marketing magic of our culture, fake things can be made to look substantive, and substantive things can be made obsolete.
We live in a material theatre of God’s glory. And if we have eyes to see its beauty, we can look around God’s created universe, from the ground under us, flowing waters, hills, trees, animals, and the stars and planets and moons in the sky, and in all these created wonders alone we enter what feels like an infinite space for lifelong wonder at the Creator’s handiwork (Romans 1:19–20).
It is a supernatural gift to hear the Creator’s sermon: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). And yet after pulling off the VR goggles, the color of the sky is muted, and the “magic” of creation is gone. Consumerism has the same type of disassociation connected with it, too. We are easily distracted from the material glories of the creation. We are creatures who are easily fascinated by what we create, while bored with what God himself has made.
Enjoy Created Glory
G.K. Chesterton illustrates our inherant blindness to created glory. “The miser who should spend a laborious life in hoarding and counting the autumn leaves has, I think, yet to be born.” It won’t happen. Why? Because the worship of gold blinds the eyes to the spectacular hues of the golden beauty of creation. In other words, he concludes, “Materials are not likely to be despised, except by materialists.”
In other words, there’s a materialism set on cherishing a pile of gold coins that leaves the soul unsatisfied, and in the end, empty. But there’s a trust in God that opens up to us the whole universe to be enjoyed (1 Timothy 6:17).
The VR revolution is coming, and so are ways of making entertainment even more striking to our eyes and ears. It’s inevitable. Consumer goods are always becoming more appealing and more affordable. In this world we need God’s wisdom to know what trends and goods we should embrace and enjoy, what goods we should resist, and how to go forward in faith, preserving the priceless value of our sense of awe and wonder at the creation.
In a consumer-driven society, perhaps the question we must ask ourselves is a profoundly theological one. Am I a materialist enough to resist materialism?