Thursday, November 19, 2009

Virtual Spirituality

Martin Marty wrote in 2005 an insightful article on the trends of modern use of virtual space. We have heard of virtual reality, and virtual space. The inventive human mind will sooner or later come up with 'virtual spirituality.' Marty distinguishes 2 kinds of spirituality. The first is communal. The second is individualistic. It is to the second that he is particularly critical about. He writes from a position of concern that this second type, called "Spirituality Two" will overwhelm the first, making the already individualistic world more extreme in itself. In "Spirituality Two," lonely people becomes more alone when they have their computer screens, their personal iPods and their own electronic gadgets to keep them company. The individual that is trapped in the second kind of spirituality is more concerned with the self and totally disconnected from flesh-and-blood communities. In its place, Spirituality Two people are at home with the digital domain. Whatever a person can dream or desire, or to lust after, thanks to technology, one can select his dream girl or gay friend, choose his preferred digital companion, and virtualize anything. If one cannot get it easily offline, one can simply go online to live out one's fantasies.

This has become rather profitable for companies like Artificial Life. An example is the availability of a virtual girl called Vivienne, who is a walking encyclopedia, a guide for all kinds of questions, who possesses a sensuous body ready to perform anything the 'customer' wants. Though one cannot have sex with the virtual woman, the company promises that one can try. Marty concludes by suggesting that the limit for Spirituality Two may ultimately be financial.

My Comments
Marty's article is an eye opener. Published in 2005, around the same time where "Second Life" was also popular, it was supposed to virtualize a person's dreams and fantasies in the remote comfort of one's computer. It fits perfectly the modern man's desire for privacy, for indulgence and for self-narcissism. Currently, social networking is much more exciting than such virtual toys. People talk more about Facebook, Twitter and even mySpace. I find it quite ironic that while society is said to be getting more individualistic, yet the rise of social networking shows that people still desire to be connected more than being in their own private domain. Fortunately, Marty's negative view of "Spirituality Two" did not become as popular as social networking. People are excitedly connecting meaningfully with one another, in the digital realm. That said, it does not mean that society is any less individualistic.

If I were to call 'Spirituality One' as physical community, and "Spirituality Two" as ego-centric individualism, is 'Spirituality Three' (social networking style) a digital revision of 'Spirituality One?' If that is so, the big concern is whether "Spirituality Four" will be "Spirituality Two" reincarnated?

Strange world. People are beginning to use 'spirituality' as a means to meet their innermost desire for meaning in life. More will be turning to the digital medium to find that meaning. I will be observing cautiously signs for the next phase, once the fad of social networking dies off.


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