My friends Julian and Erin live in a converted farmhouse, surrounded by an olive grove, on the border between Tuscany and Umbria. You can see both regions from the art studio built on the side, with the famous hills receding into that distant blue, topped with cypress trees and Etruscan towns. If it sounds idyllic, it is. Julian and Erin are real artists, but they let me hang out and scribble. We take trips out to those surrounding hill towns, grab an espresso, spend a few hours sketching and maybe choose something fresh from the market. Then, back to the paints, and the masterpieces.
Never once have we been to Sienna, Florence, Arezzo or Assisi, which are world-famous centres for any art lover. Vital paintings and architecture live there, but visiting them would be a gorgeous distraction from the work at hand. We artists (ha, ha!) need to learn from Cimabue and Leonardo of course, but sometimes you need to pick up a pencil and just get drawing. So, instead, we stick to our local runs, and keep our focus.
In this digital journey, there are plenty of alternative places to visit, too. For reasons of space and speed, I’ve said we will need to keep our own focus tight, and keep to the local runs. We need to give our attention to the question of online church. But even here we cannot totally avoid that wider landscape and those bigger questions.
So here are seven challenges which most closely surround our task, and cast their shadow over it. Think of them as tempting Tuscan towns. Like my artist friends, and their attitude to the great art of Florence, we need to be aware of these challenges, even if it is out of the corner of our eye, because they create the contexts in which our question sits. Each of them requires believing Christians who know their stuff to do some hard, biblical thinking, in areas which are fast moving. But that would be a distraction for us, here. Instead we’re going to list them, identify some key factors which we’ll need, and then head back to our work.
The world of computing deals in metaphors. At base it has only two tools: on/off, a binary switch. But out of that, at speed, it can create the illusion, the impression, of our experience of thinking. And so we use the language of our experience of thinking to describe it. A computer has ‘memory’, our phones are ‘smart’. And, most powerfully, they are heading towards being as ‘intelligent’ as us.
I’ll give away my hand: I think ‘Artificial Intelligence’ is an overblown metaphor. Profoundly so. Because although there many tasks that computers can already do faster than us, more reliably than us, the human brain is still the most complex object in the known universe, and no human-made computer can begin to approach it in overall synthetic ability. AI can mimic some, few, aspects, and in certain controlled test conditions we can be fooled, like a magician can fool us that she can make a person disappear. Of course she can’t, but she can – with a lot of work and the right angles – give the illusion that she can. So with Artificial Intelligence.
But we might think it can be Intelligent. We might start to believe the metaphor. And if we do, ethical questions need addressing.
What can you do, that a computer could never do?
What makes you, made in the image of God, you?
Let’s take that AI computer and put some skin on it, and give it a pulse and some warmth. Let’s give it some memories and the simulacrum of emotions. How do you like your robot?
Shall we staff hospitals with them, because they are efficient, friendly, and very accurate?
Shall we staff nursing homes with them, for the same reasons? Perhaps should allow them to decide when an elderly patient’s quality of life has declined to a point where medication should cease.
Shall we send them into the army, where they would feel no fear or pain? Should we teach them to simulate fear or pain, so a human enemy might not shoot or torture them?
And if your robot was very well made and very attractive, how far would you go in your relationship? After all, a sex robot can’t be that far away, so – could you be a robosexual?
What about combining the two, surgically enhancing the enfleshed human with an enfleshed AI? Let’s keep this simple and imaginable: you already accept that your phone and your bank cards have chips which allow you to pay through them. Would you accept a small microchip in the palm of your hand, to do that? Maybe to include your driving license or passport?
Yuk, yes? But what about your dad having a pacemaker implanted, with 24/7 access to a hospital CGI monitor, and an alert to the hospital team?
VR is the idea of a parallel, digitally created, interactive universe. No, universes, because there is no limit to them. For the moment let’s take them at the simple level, of a game or programme, in which you can choose the parameters of a different reality. It’s fairly harmless and simple, and you play online with a team of friends you’ve met online from around the world. These games have proved to come with a strong element of addiction, but let’s leave that for the moment. You could argue that this is scarcely different from losing yourself in a good movie.
Until you apply your Christian mind. Does getting angry and killing people in World of Warcraft count as this-world anger and murder in your heart, to be confessed? Imagine that in a virtual reality, you fall in love, marry and settle down. But in this world you are already married. Have you just committed adultery? Have you just committed bigamy? If you think this is silly, Douglas Estes reports that people do want to get married – even buried – on Second Life.
Augmented or Enhanced Reality
A while back, I joined a group of people at the Apple Store in Covent Garden, London, to be lent new iPhones with a particular software package. Artists had installed artworks around this part of London, and our task was to walk round together, looking through our phone screens, and find them.
It was truly astonishing. The artists had overlaid moving, interactive, fantasy pieces in the real world, which responded to us as we engaged with them. At one point the world turned black-and-white, and negative, at another vast dragons flew over Trafalgar Square, which lit up like a multicoloured neon chessboard. Real trees contained apparently real goblins. It was a seamless combination of actual and digital.
The most widespread public experience of AR/ER is probably the downloadable game Pokémon Go, where virtual creatures, the Pokémon, appear in real space/time locations, and engage with the player. People playing it have caused the occasional incident and accident, because they’re staring at a screen not the street, but the overall experience has been positive, and benign.
At this stage, the claim is only to ‘augment’ or ‘enhance’ what we normally encounter. An engineer can see what a potential bridge would look like, on the spot, and then as she moves around it. A tourist can get information about sites, and hotels, and travel, as though every building had a real-time hyperlink. A pastor can look at someone, and their name, family members, and small group appears beside them.
I made that one up.
So what could go wrong? As I wandered round Trafalgar Square, pointing an iPhone at an imaginary flying dragon made of iridescent bubbles, backing into a tourist was probably the only risk factor. But looking forwards, I can imagine the same virtual/real tensions will arise. A classroom will come alive, when a teacher makes the Magna Carta appear, or a surgeon can teach an operation in microscopic, interactive 3D. But imagine a courtroom, looking at a movie of you conducting a robbery – one you know you didn’t do, but the VR evidence seems conclusive.
I don’t do computer games. That’s not because I dislike them – on the contrary, I find them utterly engrossing. One of my sons hooked me into Civilisation one afternoon, and I still haven’t confessed what time I went to bed. So, out of respect for my weakness, I don’t do them. Saying no is easier than stopping.
Jane McGonigal, a game designer who has researched the effects of gaming and argues that positive lessons that can be learnt from them, says that ‘More than 1 billion people on this planet currently play digital games for, on average, at least one hour a day.… 99% of boys under 18 and 92% of girls under 18 report playing video games regularly (on average 13 hours a week for boys and 8 hours a week for girls).McGonigal’s claim is that valuable life lessons – like making targets, succeeding at trials, naming and vanquishing enemies, can be learnt and applied to life from the gaming experience. The theory is built on her personal experience of recovering from the trauma of concussion as if the healing processes were the levels of a game in play.
Others think it is less of a blessing. Adam Alter, noting that World of Warcraft has those a hundred million subscribers, and has grossed more than ten billion dollars, says it is ‘one of the most addictive behavioural experiences on the planet’. In other words, it is a hugely successful business model built on exploiting a human weakness. We shall come back to the question of addiction, because that is not a minor issue.
Let’s sum up. There are three kinds of questions which have emerged, which we need to acknowledge, but park. The first is, broadly, aesthetic, and we can frame it like this: the power of our technology is such that it can give the experience (or the illusion of the experience) of a brighter reality than our own, with enhanced colours, different laws and other possibilities. Fantasy can intertwine with reality in such a way that it can become hard to peel them apart.
Pastorally, that raises all kinds of issues. Does AR encourage people to be dissatisfied with actual reality? Have we engaged people’s imaginations properly at church, so that the gospel is seen as more entrancing than AR? If reading about dragons in Tolkien is OK, is looking at them, riding them and calling to them OK as well?
The second set of questions is more to do with discipleship and spirituality, hovering round the topic we glanced on earlier. Is virtual sin, sin?
And the third set is ethical, to do with the new questions we shall be asking about the limits and extensions of being human as contrasted with being digital.
As I said at the start of this post, I’m raising these issues because of their pressing nature, but to be clear that they lie close to, but not on, our path. Other, surer footed guides, will be needed to take us over there.
So, we’ve had to turn church off and on again. That’s no bad thing. Actor Alan Alda once said, “Your assumptions are your window on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Well, we’ve had to scrub them all off, right back to nothing. Let’s start to build our biblical picture of church all over again.
This is an adapted excerpt from @church: is online, off limits?
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 Douglas Estes, SIMCHURCH: Being the Church in the Virtual World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009),132f.
 Jane McGonigal, SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient: How a Gameful Life Can Make You Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient (London: Harper Collins, 2016), 24.
 Adam Alter, Irresistible: Why you are addicted technology and how to set yourself free
(London: Penguin/Vintage, 2017), 16-17.
 See, for instance, John Lennox 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), John Wyatt, Matters of Life and Death: Human Dilemmas in the Light of the Christian Faith(Nottingham: IVP, 2009).