It’s summer in your neighborhood.  School is out in suburban America.  Trees line ponds stocked with fish available for “catch and release,” the “natural” areas abounding with turtles, ducks, geese, cotton-tailed rabbits, and squirrels.  Shady parks are equipped with playgrounds with swings and what used to be called monkey bars.  Look around you.  It doesn’t take long to notice: The neighborhood seems strangely empty.  There are few, if any, children playing at the parks.  Except on holidays, few people are at the pools.  Nobody is around.

Then you spot her—the power walker, arms cocked, hips swinging with an exaggerated gait, ears covered by headphones or plugged in with earbuds.

Welcome to the connected world.

Your childhood days may have been like mine—summers of unbounded play, wandering through fields, building forts or tree houses, and following meandering creeks with your dog blazing the trail to who knows where.  Maybe your father, like mine, cut out wooden swords and shields for reenacting, as we did, battles fought long ago, troops of boys defending the homeland like the heroes of the Alamo or Thermopylae.  The only limitations on your adventures were the depth and richness of your imagination and the supply of daylight on seemingly endless days.  Maybe you, like me, a reader who always had a book at hand, were transported by your favorite authors’ stories to strange places and times distant.  Your mind wandered and developed.  Words and ideas were made into play and then into the stuff of life: work, leisure, friendship, worship, and family.

But America’s summer, it seems, is over.

Disconnecting from a connected world places one on the fringes of postmodern life, like people who still read serious hard-copy books with pleasure, or recite poetry, or who wander aimlessly on bright days, not oblivious to the shapes of clouds or the colors of leaves and flowers.

The frantically paced connected world gathers speed.  Postmodern life seems driven by nonevents regurgitated as a torrent of trivia by computers, iPhones, radios, iPads, Instagrams, blaring flat-screen TVs in every strip mall and airport, and glowing little blue screens captivating passengers on every bus and airplane.  Even in your own living room, each family member or guest may have his own glowing little screen, his own detached reality, his own virtual world.  And shared experience is limited to a “like” on Facebook.

Where are the children?  They are nestled in the cocoon of an almost perfectly regulated artificial environment, cooled, heated, and charged.  Their eyes are focused on dancing images, role playing in video games, killing and dying and rising again, mapping, questing, and texting.  Family albums are long gone, replaced by digital images that disappear into the ether.  Time has been suspended, memory eradicated by immediacy.  The world they have wrapped themselves in stunts the imagination, blunts the senses, and shortens attention spans with rapid-fire stimuli.  Artificial reality lends them a sense of omnipotence.  The first casualty is wonder and, with it, awe.  The religious sense is dulled.  Who needs God when each is his own god, his own creator, transforming and reinventing the all-powerful self?  Who needs neighbors or community, when one has “friends”?

In his short story “The Murderer,” Ray Bradbury anticipated the maddening hum of a world that could be simultaneously lifeless (in the sense of once commonly shared activities and experiences) and hectic, focused on a frenzy of virtual activity.  The story’s protagonist has been found insane, confined to a psychiatric ward for the crime of “murdering” technology.  When asked about his destruction of the modern world’s wonders, Albert Brock explains to a visiting psychiatrist that, when he destroyed ubiquitous interactive electronic devices (wrist phones foreshadow smartphones in Bradbury’s story, while instant messaging, endless distractions, and inane Facebook “updates,” as well as the flat drone of a GPS issuing voice instructions, are also anticipated), a sense of peace and serenity overcame him:

The doctor paused.


“And what happened next?”

“Silence happened next.  God, it was beautiful.  That car radio crackling all day ‘Brock go here, Brock go there, Brock check in’ . . . Well, that silence was like putting ice cream in my ears.”

Albert Brock had launched a one-man campaign to disconnect everyone around him, using his “portable diathermy machine” to detach his fellow bus passengers from their connected world: “I switched on my diathermy!  Static!  Interference! . . . Silence!  A terrible, unexpected silence.  The bus inhabitants forced with having to converse with one another.  Panic!  Sheer, animal panic!”

At the end of the story, Brock looks back at the dawn of the technological world and ponders how much choice was actually exercised by those who became its captives: “It was all so enchanting at first.  The very idea of those things, the practical uses . . . They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved . . . wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even.”

Bradbury’s distracted masses, as in our own time, had become locked into a pattern of frenetic mental pacing.  The connected frenzy destroys the capacity for reflection as the desensitized pleasure centers of our brains require ever new, advanced (or depraved) stimuli, further blunting the senses and the capacity for enjoying—or even perceiving—the natural world and, along with it, long-held truths (Russell Kirk’s “permanent things”) that can only be transmitted to people who have some connection to the wellsprings of common human experience, a world that is rapidly receding from the detached hive mind of postmodern people.

Our world is a virtual land of the lost, subject to manipulation and control on a scale unimagined by the most determined despots of the past.  There is a definite correlation between connected detachment and the acceptance of the preposterous, unreal notion of “fluid”/“trans” sexual identities—i.e., that Bruce Jenner is a woman because he “identifies” as such.  Postmodernism is about the deconstruction of any criterion for evaluating objective truth.  The triumph of the subjective is the triumph of these new “realities.”

Being connected (or cut off) with iPhones, tablets, and the now-ubiquitous earbuds represents only one side of the present danger.  Virtual reality or VR is a newly evolving and even more ominous frontier in our sinister brave new unreal world.

What is virtual reality?  In The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, Michael R. Hiem identifies seven “concepts” associated with VR: simulation, interaction, artificiality, immersion, “telepresence” (the sense of being “present” in a virtual reality), and “network communication.”  VR is most often associated with head-mounted display goggles, of which a number are either currently or soon to be available—Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus, Gear VR, Hololens, and Google Cardboard among them.  (The headgear, which is plugged into computers or even smartphones, ranges from about $30 to several hundred dollars in price.) defines VR as a medium that uses computer technology “to create a simulated, three-dimensional world that a user can manipulate and explore while feeling as if he were part of that world.”  A VR experience should include “three-dimensional images that appear to be life-sized from the perspective of the user” and the ability to track a user’s motions, “particularly his head and eye movements, and correspondingly adjust the images on the user’s display to reflect the change in perspective.”

VR can be a tool for training or even therapy.  It can, for example, can be used to train pilots, soldiers, surgeons, and drivers.  VR has therapy applications in treating those with Alzheimer’s disease, individuals recovering from stroke or spinal-cord injuries, people with brain injuries, and children stricken with cerebral palsy.  Like the computer I am typing on, VR can be a useful tool, provided the user understands the nature of the tool, its limitations, and its dangers.

There is the rub.  The connected but detached inhabitants of the postmodern world are vulnerable to, even desirous of, the dangers of VR.  The Christian doctrine of the Fall of Man tells us of the serpent and temptation, and in a world without boundaries or a commonly held morality based on revelation and natural law, the VR endgame is quite foreseeable.  (The likelihood of a connection between the prevalence of “high technology” and the death of traditional morality is another question.)

What are VR’s most likely applications for the majority of users?  The short answer is video games and pornography.

A CNN report from June of last year, for instance, focused on VR as “The Next Frontier in Gaming.”  The rise or fall of VR, CNN tells us, would partly depend on the content of and applications for “gaming.”  Vast amounts of money and resources are being poured into the development of VR gaming applications.  If you believe that the point-and-kill video games of today can be damaging to the bodies and souls of our already flabby, desensitized, and stimulus-addicted youth, imagine the results of VR becoming the norm in gaming.

VR may soon consume narrative cinema as an entertainment medium, another shared experience done in by atomized, isolated thrills.  The Verge, reporting on the Sundance film festival in January, concluded that the “future of independent film may not be film at all,” but an audience of one, who straps on a pair of VR goggles.  Sundance now includes a VR section:

Take Birdly, a full-body VR experiment that turns you into a bird flying above the streets of San Francisco, soaring higher with every flap of your arms.  Or Project Syria, which throws the viewer in the middle of a harrowing rocket attack.  Or, perhaps most darkly, Perspective; Chapter I: The Party, which lets you see the world through the eyes of a man, and then a woman, as an encounter at a college party turns into sexual assault.  All are on display at New Frontier, Sundance’s annual showcase for works at the intersection of art and technology.  And they’ve quickly become the talk of the festival.

Stephen Tweedie, in an article for Michigan Daily describing the capabilities of the Oculus Rift, has summed up the attractions and potential dangers of VR technology.  Noting the unhealthily addictive qualities of today’s technologies, Tweedie wrote that VR could “potentially create a level of dystopian obsession” that would make current video gaming addictions look “tame.”  He concluded that the Rift “will prove a slippery slope for those already prone to the addictive qualities of modern media.”  Tweedie also identified the next, particularly dehumanizing, frontier for VR: pornography.

The porn industry is well on its way to developing “virtual sex.”  TechCrunch informs us that the couple (described as “Mike Kovalsky,” a pseudonym, and “his husband”) behind a company called VirtualRealPorn are developing VR sex experiences that are a “leap forward in erotic intensity.”  Meanwhile, another company is developing “Internet-connected sex toys” to add to the “virtual sex” experience.  As TechCrunch put it, “the demand for immersive virtual porn appears to be plentiful”: “If you think it’s hard to imagine someone actually strapping on a VR headset and a connected sex toy just to have virtual sex with a porn star, then it’s likely you haven’t imagined hard enough.”

TechCrunch’s Dan Kaplan was quite candid about where “virtual sex” was likely to go.  Kaplan noted credible studies suggesting that those who become addicted to pornography “experience less pleasure in the rest of their lives”:

Real, flesh-and-blood physical and mental connections with other human beings seems [sic] to be fundamental to a positive sense of self.  Likewise, as the psychological havoc wreaked by solitary confinement suggests, the absence of these things is destructive. . . . It’s not difficult to imagine a future where a cohort of the male population . . . sits at home many nights with the Oculus Rift strapped to their heads, living out their sexual fantasies in VR, having their psychology further shaped and distorted by the persistent absence of connection with real life people.

Indeed, as “Kovalsky” told Kaplan, “We really believe that virtual reality will drive relationships between humans” in the future.  Alistair Charlton of the International Business Times recently quoted a subject who had tested VR sex.  VR pornography, he said, will “probably spell the end of civilization.  I just know some people will never, ever take that thing off.”

Dr. Helen Driscoll, described by Britain’s Daily Mirror as “a leading authority on the psychology of sex and relationships,” has opined that, as VR becomes more realistic, “it is conceivable that some will choose this in preference to sex with a less than perfect human being.”  Some may even “fall in love with their virtual reality partners”: “This may seem shocking and unusual now, but we should not automatically assume that virtual relationships have less value than real relationships.  The fact is, people already fall in love with fictional characters though there is no chance to meet and interact with them.”

Indeed, as Driscoll pointed out, this may already be happening, as many Japanese young people are avoiding “intimate relationships”: “Japanese men are already taking their virtual girlfriend apps away on holiday with them to the island of Atami.”

Driscoll, who seems quite mad (but not unusual in this day and age), foresees a time when increasingly isolated people may prefer the company of “intelligent robots indistinguishable from humans.”

Friendship, romance, and sex are well on their way to being separated from contact between real, live human beings.  With the help of technology, civilization is literally deconstructing itself.