Last Sunday our church congregation honored two of its recent high school graduates as they prepared to embark this fall on their college careers. As the worship service opened, one of the college-bound duo, along with her younger sister, performed a selection on piano. Although I am by no means a connoisseur of classical music, I recognized the piece to be a Chopin composition. The young woman performed it expertly. The piece itself is quite beautiful and moving just to sit and listen to a recorded version, but I have to admit to being even more transported by the music upon hearing it performed live in the church sanctuary. In addition to the undeniable beauty of the piece, something about the proximity of hearing the notes and chords struck and feeling the vibrations emanating from that wooden box elevated the experience considerably. It would not be an exaggeration to say that as the notes filled the sanctuary, I could feel some part of myself lifted upward, taking its place among the sounds reverberating in the space.
I can’t speak for others in the congregation. Their experience may have been quite different from mine. However, the round of applause that followed the performance, a rarity at these gatherings, indicated that others were quite taken by the music as well. For much of the pandemic, these services were conducted via Zoom. Trying to simulate a church service over the internet imposes a number of limitations. People gather together to worship, pray, fellowship, make music and sing. Much of that cannot be accomplished via a video/audio link with each person or family stuck inside their box, set apart from the whole. The whole is important. It is vital that individuals gather together to create the body that is offering worship, song and praise. Anyone who has ever been to a large sporting event, and given their attention to cheering and supporting their team, has felt the energy or spirit that is generated by being among the body of supporters. As fun as it is to watch a game on tv or gather with a group of people on the internet, none of it can approximate the experience of gathering together in the same physical location with the collective attention focused on a singular goal or purpose.
Which is why It strikes me as something of a fool’s errand that these tech developers are working so earnestly at creating virtual spaces to simulate physical reality or provide a “better” alternative to it. In the process of duplication, some part of what is being copied is always lost. In the music example, a digital recording is always going to fail to capture the fullness and completeness of the sound. No doubt they will try to simulate a concert experience where you or your avatar can be present at the performance of a famous band or a symphony orchestra. Duplicating the immense complexity of that kind of live performance would be impossible. Both the physics and the previously mentioned nonphysical qualities would preclude it. But, of course, that is not the intention of the techsters. Their aim is to get users to expect less, to be satisfied with a dumbed-down version of reality. They reduce people to an avatar with a flag or a couple of symbols next to their name and then corral them into a virtual space lacking in richness and complexity, a realm they control where the outcomes are predictable. Far from embracing human potential and possibility, the technobrats are engaged in a kind of reductionism. I’ll stick with being elevated elsewhere.