This is a guest post by Karen O'Donnell. Karen is currently Research Fellow in Digital Pedagogy at the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology. Karen completed her PhD at the University of Exeter, which focused on theologies of the body and psycholoanalytic theories of somatic memory. Building on her interests in these fields, Karen is now undertaking research into augmented reality, which is the subject of her blogpost here. She can be contacted at: karen.o’email@example.com.
The squeaking, whirring, and buzzing sound of the dial-up modem is, for most of us, a thing of the past, something to describe to younger generations. It marked out a border crossing. A stepping out into a no-man’s land. The movement from offline to online. In the contemporary world of broadband, wifi, and mobile data, there is no comparative movement. This no-man’s land has almost ceased to exist. I argue that whilst the offline/online binary has had its day, the other binary most commonly articulated in discussions about digital technology is, and always has been, false—the virtual/real binary. Replacing this false binary with the notion of Augmented Reality (AR) is a more accurate and helpful way to understand our relationship to the digital world.
In 1997, Douglas Groothuis argued that the internet, then still in relatively early days, dehumanizes us:
through lack of personal presence. An important theological question is: How disembodied should our communication be? The internet distributes information widely and quickly, but in a merely electronic form, which lacks the personal presence at the heart of biblical discipleship, fellowship, and worship. When cyberspace begins to replace embodied interactions, we fail to honor the incarnational nature of Christianity.
Groothuis’ perspective is one echoed by Christians in the subsequent twenty years and belies a sharp digital dualism. The digital world becomes synonymous with ‘virtual’ and thus is assumed to be counterfeit, fake in some way. Human engagement in this world is seen as disembodied, detached—one is not really there. Such a view is at odds with a Christian life that priorities incarnational relationships.
Such digital dualism is a common approach to the digital world. Social Media theorist Nathan Jurgenson coined the term to describe the habit of viewing the offline and the online world as distinct and separate. He prefers the term Augmented Reality to describe the relationship between the online and the offline, arguing that the digital and the physical are increasingly meshed and our contemporary reality is both technological and organic.
We are not crossing in and out of separate digital and physical realities ala [sic] The Matrix, but instead live in one reality, one that is augmented by atoms and bits. And our selves are not separated across these two spheres as some dualistic ‘first’ and ‘second’ self, but is instead an augmented self. A Haraway-like cyborg self comprised of a physical body as well as our digital Profile, acting in constant dialogue.
Moving away from a digital dualism that artificially distinguishes between so-called real and so-called virtual (as if what happens in ‘real’ life doesn’t affect our Facebook accounts and vice versa!) towards an AR view of the world offers a much more helpful way of understanding our relationship to digital technology, avoids false binaries, and more accurately identifies the role of technology in our lives.
AR offers the opportunity for a much more holistic view of the self. It moves away from a split self separated across two spheres—one real and one virtual. Such a view of the self is in theological keeping with the Christian understanding of the person. In the 1960s, Wolfhart Pannenberg argued:
There is no independent reality of a ‘soul’ in contrast to the body, just as there is not a body that is merely mechanically or unconsciously moved. Both are abstractions. The only reality is the unity of the living creature called man.
This holistic view of the person was in sharp contrast to the centuries of theological thought that had preceded it. Distinguishing between the physical and the spiritual in the person had long been the practice of the Church and had detrimental theological implications for the body in general and women’s bodies in particular. This distinction between the physical and the spiritual lead to the stereotype of woman as fleshly, weak and irrational. The association with the body here is a negative connection. To be fleshly, to be bodily, is opposed to being spiritual and rational—the characteristics of the male.
Such a distinction is at odds with the biblical understanding of the person. In the New Testament, Paul does not distinguish between the soul and the body or the mind and the body but rather sees them as a united whole—the life of a person, body and soul together. So, for example, when he writes “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5. 23) Paul isn’t articulating a tripartite division within the person, but rather praying for complete unity and wholeness as an expression of life in Christ.
Interestingly, this old perceived binary between body and soul priorities the immanent, transcendent, so-called spiritual part of the person as being the real one. Digital dualism has the opposite priority. For dualists, the more real, authentic part is the physical person. If we persist in this digital dualism, we uphold a distinction between the mind and the body that is theologically bankrupt. Thus, if the person is an holistic, embodied, material entity that cannot be split into ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ then we must reassess our relationship with digital technology. We must have a similarly holistic view of reality. This, then, is the value of AR.
To perceive of technology as augmenting our reality (rather than removing us from it and entering us into a fake ‘reality’) has some significant theological advantages. First, it more accurately reflects the reality of the created order. To augment something is to make it greater by adding to it. As created co-creators, to borrow Philip Hefner’s term, this is part of the human’s purview as one’s functioning in imago Dei. To think of digital technology as augmenting created reality is to create a wealth of possibilities for using it well for learning, for communication, for creativity. For both Karl Barth and Emil Brunner it is our ability to establish and maintain complex and intricate relationships that see us fulfilling the imago Dei. An augmented reality, where the physical includes the technological and both person and reality are viewed holistically, is one in which communication, creativity, and deep, personal relationship thrives.
AR crosses boundaries and refuses to be defined by traditional binary assumptions and persistent dualisms of natural/unnatural, real/virtual. If the creation of boundaries is a political act, then the transgression of them is surely equally political and subversive. AR meshes together two seemingly impenetrable worlds and in doing so offers us something new—embodied, material, augmented, with greater potential for creativity, greater depth of relationship, and new ways of perceiving the world—sounds awfully incarnational to me. For in crossing the boundary between divine and human, Jesus inaugurated an augmented reality –embodied, material, creative, relational—a new way of perceiving the world. AR not only offers an holistic view of reality and the person, but also offers a new depth of incarnational relationship. Let us move away from the virtual/real binary, which has never been real in the first place, and embrace a reality augmented creatively with digital technology as expression of the remarkable, curious creativity of created co-creators, made in imago Dei and living as incarnational boundary crossers.