Staying grounded in an expanding digital world

Written by Josh Tiessen

Two Christmases ago, I purchased a virtual reality headset and entered the metaverse as an experiment. I watched VR films, played games, painted in three dimensions, interacted with human avatars in social worlds, and even attended a VR church service.

However, my foray was short-lived as I quickly experienced intense motion sickness. Virtual paintball was the last straw, causing me to toss my not-so-virtual cookies!

As a society we must grapple with our virtual ecospheres, whether that be the addictive social networks we frequent, augmented reality, or the all-immersive metaverse. Pandora’s box has been opened and hyperreality is shaping most of us whether we like it or not.

I began thinking more seriously about virtual reality after listening to Father John Misty’s song, “Total Entertainment Forever.” The final verse reads: “When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes / Plugged into our hubs / Skin and bones / A frozen smile on every face / As the stories replay / This must have been a wonderful place.”

In the words of media theorist Neil Postman, will we be “amused to death” via the mountain of infinite content? My painting Nirvana 5G (pictured here) raises similar probing questions.

Nirvana 5G by Josh Tiessen

The composition radiates from the 5G cell tower, which represents a modern tree of knowledge. Like the Buddha who sat cross-legged beneath the Bodhi tree of enlightenment, Qohelet (inspired by the Solomon-like figure in Ecclesiastes) levitates under the “tree” that promises omniscience. Ironically, the painting shows this hope of becoming trans-human turning on us. The very technology that promised us freedom becomes an instrument of mass surveillance, an inevitable panopticon of power.

The abandoned cityscape in my painting is reminiscent of a popular apocalyptic motif in video games and film.

As our world accelerates toward urbanization and the obliteration of the natural world, will we desire to escape to a virtual world?

While Qohelet sits mesmerized, the encircling turkey vultures and famished black jaguar serve as the only signs of life. Perhaps they will jolt Qohelet back to the real world he was called to inhabit and steward.

As an artist who paints with traditional media—oil paint on Baltic birch panel—I belong to a movement that has been described as “slow art.” However, I also use technological tools that enhance my artistic practice. I use a digital SLR camera to capture my subject matter, then Adobe Photoshop and 3D modelling software to create mock-ups for my paintings, enabling me to paint surrealistic worlds.

Our devices improve our lives in many ways—connecting us to long-distance family and friends, providing educational opportunities, and the simple pleasures of media entertainment.

But as religion professor Carl Trueman asserts, “technology defines ontology” (in his 2020 book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self). In other words, tech can dictate the nature of existence. If we are not careful, virtual reality will become our true reality, the only world we care to live in.

Brett McCracken, an editor at The Gospel Coalition, proposes a way to deal with this problem in his 2021 book titled The Wisdom Pyramid. He borrows the concept of the food pyramid, but he switches out food groups with activities ordered in the proper quantities for maximum human flourishing.

He places the internet and social media at the top of the pyramid, as they should make up the tiniest portion of our lives, whereas he argues activities like beauty (arts and culture), books, and nature should be allotted greater time.

He dedicates the bottom of the pyramid to the Church—Spirit-filled local communities, which help increase our wisdom by orienting our lives around God. At the very bottom is the Bible, our only infallible source of truth that reveals God, the ultimate standard of wisdom.

In McCracken’s view, embodied activities like art, nature hikes, church, and board games with friends remind us that physical reality, lived out face-to-face with people and in creation, is our true home.

The repeated refrain throughout Proverbs is “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Naturally, having a “fear” (reverence) for God means prioritizing activities that are aligned with the Creator’s design for our lives in the bodies and communities we inhabit, instead of chasing after self-centred media “fantasies” (Proverbs 28:19).

By putting technology in its proper place, through small practices like daily app limits, tech-less meals and tech Sabbaths, we can experience a sense of freedom, recognizing the power we have to live countercultural lives within our technocratic age.

Josh Tiessen is a fine artist, speaker, and writer based in Stoney Creek, Ont. His painting Nirvana 5G is one of 23 works in his new series Vanitas and Viriditas, which recently debuted as a solo exhibition at Rehs Contemporary Gallery in New York City. Read more of his columns.