Augmented reality

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a tenuous relationship with technology. I need a lot of help. When you say, “Oh, I just love [x] – it’s so intuitive,” I hear, “Oh, something else Sean will have a hard time using.” I’m not a Luddite. I own a smartphone, I’m typing this on the laptop a friend recommended would meet my needs and budget (which computing power and capabilities I’m sure I’m using about 0.3% of). But I confess that just about the time I’m getting comfortable with one OS, there have been three new versions, of which I finally have to update to the latest because apps stop working, and when I do I can’t find what I’m looking for or it looks different or it’s changed to be more intuitive and my brain doesn’t work like everyone else’s apparently. “They’re just tools,” I hear you say. Well, I know how to use a hammer. Or a screwdriver. Or a table saw, even. But my phone is still a bit of a mystery to me.

I’m a fan of dystopian science fiction. Most such novels are set in futures where technology has reverted to far more primitive forms, and despite the overall horror of the varied imagined future worlds, I take a kind of perverse comfort in the thought that my intuition might serve me well there. Last night I finished “When the English Fall“, which is the rare novel in this genre which describes the beginning of the apocalyptic scenario, rather than its future. The story unfolds through the pages of the journal kept by an Amish farmer before and after an event that wipes out the electrical systems that make modern life what it is. As his neighbors – who do not grow, can and preserve their own food as the plain folk do – run out of food, society begins the slide into violence that characterizes such fiction. But it is the gentle description of the daily activities of this farmer’s family that captivated me, as well as their generous faith when “the English” begin to suffer.

That story stands in stark contrast to the other dystopian novel I read recently, “Ready Player One“, which anyone who was a geek in the ’80s will love, as I did (think, ZX Spectrum 48K, the last time I felt somewhat confident in front of a computer). A current bestseller five years after publication (thanks to the announcement that Steven Spielberg is going to direct the movie adaptation), this story is set in a future where the vast majority of people live in utterly desperate straits, and so choose to “live” in the world of virtual reality. Thanks to free access to a global online network, in which you can ‘physically’ interact with the environment and others through a visor and gloves, the protagonist tries to solve a puzzle left behind by the network’s creator. Given the choice between sitting in squalor in trailers stacked 30 units high, or exploring the virtual world, it’s no wonder most choose the latter.

The power of dystopian fiction – as with most science fiction – is that it takes what is happening now and looks ahead to what that might mean for the future, and the vision is usually quite alarming. A couple of articles I read over the last few months heightened the drama of both these novels for me. Both articles concerned ‘augmented reality,’ “Tech’s next battleground” as the first article claimed (published in ‘The Week – subscription required to read, I’m afraid). The article concluded with a statement made by Apple CEO Tim Cook, following the release of the latest iOS that includes ARKit, which will allow app developers to integrate augmented reality into their products: “AR is big and profound. This is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it.” Currently a couple of popular apps allow you to ‘see’ furniture in your home before purchasing it, or – in a companion app to ‘The Walking Dead’ – see zombies walking alongside real people in the street and ‘shoot’ them.

In this article on the BBC’s website, you can read about the app “AR City” which will allow you to view your surroundings through your phone and see information like this:

Not only can it get you from A to B without GPS, it can tell you what’s available to eat nearby, or the history of that building in front of you. All very helpful and fascinating I’m sure. And all designed to keep us staring at our phone screens. Interacting with technology and not the physical environment – or each other. Rather than ask someone for directions, or for a suggestion as to where to get a bite to eat, we can now get that information from a screen – how convenient.

I read the Week’s article just before I left one of the local coffee shops to walk home for lunch. As I walked, I thought about the article. I passed my daughter’s school, and as I saw the wide swaths of grass that are mowed weekly during the summer, in their place I envisioned small orchards of fruit trees, and raised beds of vegetables that could provide fresh produce for the cafeteria, and educational opportunities for the students. And I was suddenly struck by this thought:

“Augmented reality:” what we used to call “imagination.”

When we were kids and walking home from youth group, we didn’t stare at screens and try to avoid animated zombies: we ducked behind actual walls and gates, trying to avoid being ‘seen’ by car headlights. When I walk through my neighborhood, I don’t stare at a screen with an overlay that changes what I’m seeing in some way: I greet neighbors sitting on their stoops, I wonder what that flower is, I notice that the plums on the big tree down the street are almost ripe. I imagine that vacant lot filled with perennial berry bushes and beds of greens. I don’t see the information someone else provides in order to keep me looking at a screen so they can charge someone for advertising products to me I don’t need: I see the world as it is, and imagine what it could be.

That, to me, is part of what it means to heed the words of Jesus in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, which thanks to my childhood church, I will always hear in King James’ English: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” What will be added? Food and clothing, the basic things of life. Things that I take for granted, but which many of my neighbors struggle to find at the end of the month. I could walk around my neighborhood and fight off hordes of zombies, pausing every now and then to watch a video advertising a gadget that promises to improve my life, or make me the envy of my neighbors, or whatever. (An ad which I suspect most people are actually watching the timer telling them how long they have to wait before getting back to the zombies rather than the video itself.) Or I could walk around my neighborhood and imagine more community gardens, more perennial fruit and nut trees, a small business in that boarded up store – that imagination calling forth action from me to work with others to make those things a reality. So our neighbors have better access to things we all actually need.

I’m not sure augmented reality is what we need. What we need is a healthy imagination, a Kin-dom imagination, a vision of a future that works for all of us, a future where we are more present to one another, and not less. So, the next time you go for a walk, keep your phone in your pocket. Look around. See the world as it is – and imagine it as it could be. Then let’s work together to make it a reality.

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