One of my favorite books on technology is a complete work of fiction. It’s called Ready Player One, a novel written by Ernest Cline, and soon-to-be a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg.
Ready Player One tells the story of Wade Watts, who is living in a dystopian American future amidst a world in crisis (wait, did I say it was fiction?). Using virtual reality goggles and gloves, Wade, along with billions of people around the world, login to “The Oasis”, a digital virtual reality. “The Oasis” isn’t just a game. It is an entire world unto itself that is more real and appealing for many than the physical world.
For instance, Wade attends his public high school on ‘The Oasis’, sitting in a virtual classroom, being whisked away on virtual field trips. People turn to “The Oasis” for everything. People even get married on “The Oasis”, not even having known each other in real life. But when the famed creator of “The Oasis” dies, he releases a massive game that will award winner his massive fortune and control of “The Oasis”. And Wade joins the chase.
Ready Player One is one part social commentary, one part a glimpse into the not-so-distant future of technology and one part big-hearted romp through 1980s culture. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling it for you.
In a play on the title, I’ve called this column “Ready Pastor One” because pastors and all ministry leaders need to be ready as the future comes rushing towards us with its accelerating technological advancements, including virtual reality. We all need to be ready to reflect with our faith communities on the implications of those technologies about what it means to be human and to be people of faith.
Indeed, every technological leap calls into to question what it means to be human. Do pacemakers and knee replacements make us part cyborg? What does it mean that we live on through our Facebook profiles even after we die? What are the implications for the race to develop artificial intelligence? What is our value when robots can do our jobs better than we can? What is really real—the physical world or the digital world, which we simultaneously inhabit?
What I love about Ready Player One is how it wrestles with these kind of questions and helps the reader to identify and celebrate our humanity in the midst of this digital world.
When I was just starting out as a pastor, well before the dawn of social media, a friend said to me, “People just want a pastor that is down to earth, that they know cares about them.” And he was right. Yet that feels harder than ever in our digital world. As we continually vie for people’s time and attention (those most scarce and valuable of commodities), we unwittingly fall into a race or competition to present ourselves and our churches as more desirable than other.
“People just want a pastor that is down to earth, that they know cares about them…Yet that feels harder than ever in our digital world.”
Pastor Keith Anderson
Rather than being down to earth, we can unwittingly turn ourselves and our communities into products to be consumed, rather than people with which to be in relationship. Our interactions become transactional rather than relational. Like Wade in Ready Player One, we should try to resist the commodification of our digital connections.
How do we stay ready and real? It is important to understand the technologies of our time, and not just how to use them, but how they affect how we live, connect, relate, and making meaning. As futurist Douglas Ruskoff wrote, “No matter the breadth of its capabilities, the net will not bestow upon humans the fuel or space we need to wrestle with its implications and their meaning.”
As ministry leaders, we not only need to do that for ourselves but to help our faith communities do the same. Furthermore, it is essential to focus on relationships, keep showing up, listen first and then respond, promote others rather than yourself, and be kind.
Jesus once told his disciples that they must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) Same goes for life online. We need to maneuver in this digital world in a way that enables us to connect with others, but then to go beyond just connecting to ever-deepening relationship with those in our networks and communities.
The future is coming fast. Are you ready?