In 2009 Elder Bednar gave a speech at BYU called, “Things as They Really Are.” Therein, he gave apostolic warning against the potential damaging effects of the virtual digital worlds.
“I raise an apostolic voice of warning about the potentially stifling, suffocating, suppressing, and constraining impact of some kinds of cyberspace interactions and experiences upon our souls….
The adversary attempts to influence us both to misuse our physical bodies and to minimize the importance of our bodies. These two methods of attack are important for us to recognize and to repel….
Are you suggesting that video gaming and various types of computer-mediated communication can play a role in minimizing the importance of our physical bodies?” That is precisely what I am declaring. Let me explain.
We live at a time when technology can be used to replicate reality, to augment reality, and to create virtual reality….
In each of these examples, a high degree of fidelity in the simulation or model contributes to the effectiveness of the experience. The term fidelity denotes the similarity between reality and a representation of reality. Such a simulation can be constructive if the fidelity is high and the purposes are good—for example, providing experience that saves lives or improves the quality of life….
However, a simulation or model can lead to spiritual impairment and danger if the fidelity is high and the purposes are bad—such as experimenting with actions contrary to God’s commandments or enticing us to think or do things we would not otherwise think or do “because it is only a game….”
I plead with you to beware of the sense-dulling and spiritually destructive influence of cyberspace technologies that are used to produce high fidelity and that promote degrading and evil purposes.
If the adversary cannot entice us to misuse our physical bodies, then one of his most potent tactics is to beguile you and me as embodied spirits to disconnect gradually and physically from things as they really are.”
Eleven years ago, when Elder Bednar spoke, the concept of virtual reality (VR) was limited to what man created to enable users to do what reality couldn’t permit, without disproportionately skewing the risk-benefit ratio. Doctors could simulate surgeries without hurting anyone; researchers could run simulated realities to see consequences that would otherwise have been destructive or dangerous; and gamers could go to space, to war, to the racetrack, etc. without any risk to themselves while experiencing the thrill or discovering results that made it beneficial and or fun.
But while the increase in fidelity has blessed us with discovery and cures through simulation, it has also increased the addictive nature of games and the extremes in which users can experience a brain-chemical rush of being on the edge, making escapism easier and more appealing than ever today. Has it also inadvertently created a desensitization to violence and worse, a risk of a diminished capability to differentiate what is real and a desire to act as if everything is only virtual?
The Pew Research Center surveyed digital experts and the effects digital possibilities would have on the future of humanity. Barry Chudakov, principal with the Chudakov Company, commented, “…In most of human history we have not had simulations to describe and invent ourselves other than texts and two-dimensional representations. These mirror worlds are multi-dimensional experiences with profound implications for education, medicine, and social interaction. ‘Real life’ as we know it is over. Soon when anyone mentions reality, the first question we will ask is, ‘Which reality are you referring to?’ We will choose our realities, and in each reality there will be truths germane to that reality, and so we will choose our truth as well.”
In the years since a former student shared her feelings while participating in a simulation where each player used their avatar to navigate through a virtual world in pursuit of victory that was achieved by killing all the other player’s avatars, I have harbored deep concern for simulation or VR because it can ignite real feelings and subsequent decisions. She said to me, “As I succeeded in avoiding each opponent watching them kill each other off, I came to the realization that I was going to have to kill that last remaining competitor. I succeeded in manipulating things so that I came up behind him, leveled my gun at his head and then had to decide if I could really kill someone. Suddenly I was filled with a sense of power from my toes to the top of my head and throughout my very being. It was more than thrilling, powerful beyond anything I had ever experienced. Then in that fleeting moment I knew that I could do it…and I did. That sense of power has not left me!” She later had a priesthood blessing that included casting out the adversary.
Since the Columbine shootings, there has been much debate and research over whether violent and extreme video games are causative or simply associative with violent behavior. It is interesting, perhaps in an effort to not negatively impact an entire creative and successful industry, that the conclusion remains elusive. While at the same time AR and VR are touted as the future of learning and training.
During my early training to be a church educator, I was shown a learning triangle. At the base were listed the least effective things that could be done by a teacher to help a student learn. At the top was “personal experience” wherein learning is anchored. Here is how I remember it.
If I wanted to teach my student or children about apples, I could:
- Tell them about apples and describe the juicy taste and texture. – Certainly not as good as
- Showing them a picture of an apple and then describing the juicy crisp texture and flavor. Better…they can visualize it now but again not as good as
- Showing them a video would give them perspective and stimulate their imaginations a bit more but again not as good as
- Showing them the real thing and then describing everything about them as you did above.
- Simulating holding an apple, biting and savoring the apple as seen in the video is as close to experience as possible but not as effective as
- Guiding them through actually eating and savoring the apple.
But if I wanted to teach Joseph Smith’s first vision or his search for truth, I am not able to reach the experience level. Even if I could take them to the sacred grove and hopefully feel the Spirit, they couldn’t have his experience. So, the closest thing to real experience is simulation. The better the simulation, the higher the fidelity of the virtual experience including minute details, the deeper the memory and impact of the teaching.
With that information I began, through the years, to work towards simulation whenever possible. The introduction of video decreased preparation time and effectiveness in creating the environment where students could simulate what we were learning. Then the day came when one of my institute students asked if I would like to learn to write software code. Skipping ahead a year, I began to write simulations where the student became Joseph Smith by taking on the decision-making choices of an avatar time traveler working to get back home by earning enough tokens to pass by the time-keeper. Or, they would become Alma encountering the all-powerful Ammonihah. If they, as a group could make all the same choices that Alma and Amulek did as they encountered the same conflicts then they won, if not they were invited to search the scriptures to find what would work in that situation even though it sometimes meant continued imprisonment or other temporary negative results. Though these are only some examples of what we were doing in the classroom using a computer, other paper or role-play, such as missionary “simulations” worked to involve and engage the students and help them use the scriptures to solve simulated challenges.
With the increase in computing power and introduction of both artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality the possibilities are endless for both good or evil. The Pew Research Center again reports the following:
Micah Altman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and head scientist in the program on information science at MIT Libraries, said, “How technology affects people and society depends in large part on what values we embed into the design of these technologies, and who controls them. With appropriate governance, information, communication and AI, technologies can vastly increase human capability if we as a society establish the rights of users of ubiquitous technologies to inspect their operation, audit their results and exercise agency into how these systems interact with them and their data, and if we use effective regulation to ensure that these systems are both designed and operated to preserve these rights. If not, it is likely that these increasingly powerful technologies will enable concentrations of power and influence over others – economically through using these technologies to amplify the advantage of wealth, through influence over beliefs and persuasion, and through surveillance and coercion. I choose to be hopeful.”
History could be seen as a kind of virtual reality. “His-Story” is what historians give us. We try and mitigate the contriving and conflating of historical accounts by having corroborating and verifiable sources but sometimes fail to recognize that each source is a personally biased individual telling it as they thought they saw it, usually unaware of their own subjectivity. This isn’t meant to condemn history or its pursuit. It is a source of great learning. We have all heard that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But recently, as we lived through the horrors of Independence-day media reports concerning the violence from many who acted upon a “new history” of the founding of our nation by “slave owners” and “abusers of native Americans,” the danger of assumed and even contrived reality became horrifically evident. In an article, with ideas repeated throughout the media were sentiments such as:
“Whenever I see a truck driving around with an American flag stamped on its bumper or waving as they zoom by, I just feel a bit disgusted.
I’m not one to be silent about our troubling history that has led to the tension I feel in admitting these things out loud.
There’s so much negative unproductive hate online these days. As I predicted, the beginning of July was inundated with posts titled, “Why I Don’t Celebrate the Fourth of July,” or “The Oppressive History of Independence Day” or… well, you get the point.”
The strategic re-publication of selective negative elements from the lives of many of our founding fathers especially as pertaining to slavery, at a time when race riots are ravishing many downtown areas, has fueled this “virtual reality” fire that will either destroy or re-forge who we are as a nation. The concern is not just about the dangers of re-writing the stories of our national identity but in our growing facility with virtual reality and inability to differentiate it from our physical world reality. One writer calls it “presentism” when we perceive past events and people through modern cultural lenses.
The Pew research center concludes, after extensive survey of digital experts, that some have noted by 2020 augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will have reached the point that reality itself will be blurred.
Purposefully manipulated, blurred historical virtual reality can be as dangerous as violent digital virtual reality! Both take years to conceive and develop. Both produce harmful behavior from otherwise good, well intentioned even compassionate people. In the assumption of truth, decisions are made that lead to tragic behaviors bringing suffering and pain. The news is full of accounts of looters, shooters, even mass murderers, etc. immersed in their “virtual reality,” acting out what they assume or at least profess is noble, bold and even patriotic.
CNN recently published,
“This change didn’t just happen. It took years of planning and activism.
‘A multiracial fusion coalition has shifted public opinion in this country, and we’ve seen a tipping point in the past month.’ says the Rev. William Barber II, a 2018 MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant winner and president of Repairers of the Breach, a nonpartisan group that seeks to build a moral agenda around issues of poverty and racism.
‘Many of us have been building this coalition for years, taking up the work of those who came before us,’ he says. ‘We never knew when the tipping point would come, but we are now in a moment where there is a public consensus that America must address the legacy of her original sin in systemic racism.’”
The recent resignation of a New York Times opinion editor came with this alarming explanation, “I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”
Laman and Lemuel created such a virtual reality that became their virtual history and led to war, rape, murder, etc. to “even the score” or “seek justice” over 400 years after the facts.
“They were a wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, believing in the tradition of their fathers, which is this—Believing that they were driven out of the land of Jerusalem because of the iniquities of their fathers, and that they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren, and they were also wronged while crossing the sea; …and they were wronged while in the land of their first inheritance, after they had crossed the sea.” Mosiah 10:12-13
Then again 200 years later, the virtual reality had become for them, a reality that justified all their whoredoms and war.
“that this my people may recover their rights and government, who have dissented away from you because of your wickedness in retaining from them their rights of government” 3 Nephi 3:10
Even after decades of peace and the personal presence and influence of Christ himself, the power of this historical virtual reality, retold enough to cross the generational bridge into the hearts of the innocent, created hate, violence, and destruction.
“they did teach their children …to hate the children of God, even as the Lamanites were taught to hate the children of Nephi from the beginning.” 4 Nephi 1:38-39
History is ripe with examples of “story control” or virtual reality in the political contention in countries throughout Europe, Asia, and South America. Authors have noted several key centers of focus:
- Marginalize intellectual dissidents
- Rewrite the history books (school curriculum)
- Neutralize the churches
- Foment social unrest over divisive issues such as race, class distinction, etc.
- Increase national debt with resulting poverty
- Propose government solutions to the social and poverty problems above.
Sherem, Korihor, Nehor, Amalickiah, Ammoron, Akish, Gadianton, and Kishkumen are just some of the reality manipulators identified by the Book of Mormon in a warning to us in these latter days. When social manipulation has brought both apostasy and socialism in our present-day struggles to differentiate virtual reality from the real, grow testimonies in the “presentism” of an information society, or elect competent national leaders.
So how can one know what is real and how best to respond? If history, the past, is recorded bias, filtered through our own personal bias, then the present lives in the fragile crystal of perception, and the future is still being discovered. How, then, can one really know reality and not be deceived by what is only virtual?
“The Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly.” Jacob 4:13
It is no wonder that a living prophet has said, “In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost”  Though it is given to us as a gift, it must be diligently and daily received.
 Reprinted Ensign June 2010
 Augmented Reality
 Erhardt Graeff, a PhD researcher at the MIT Center for Civic Media, argued, “New jobs will demand increasingly sophisticated technical skills combined with creative problem-solving and adept teamwork…. Creative thinking, especially in teams, will be hard to develop at scale without new physical and digital infrastructures that create problem-solving contexts analogous to real-world cases. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/05/03/theme-4-training-and-learning-systems-will-not-meet-21st%E2%80%91century-needs-by-2026/
Tze-Meng Tan of Multimedia Development Corporation in Malaysia, a director at OpenSOS, responded, “The virtual world removes all barriers of human limitation… https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2008/12/14/scenario-5-the-evolution-of-augmented-reality-and-virtual-reality/
 Thank you Joseph Grenny…you changed my life!!
 On the same webpage see also:
A pioneering technology editor and reporter for one of the world’s foremost global news organizations wrote, “I don’t believe technology will be the driver for good or bad in social and civil innovation. It can be a catalyst because it has always been a strong factor in organizing people and resources, as we saw early on with ‘flash mobs’ and have seen used to deleterious effect in the disinformation operations of Russian agents that sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. I believe the social and civic innovation that can rein in excesses of surveillance capitalism, of Big Brother tech such as the abuse of facial recognition and other biometrics for social control, can only come from moral leadership. Tech is a tool. Artificial intelligence and genetic engineering are technologies. How we choose to use these tools, the ethical choices we as human societies make along the way, will define us.” Pew Research Center https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/06/30/tech-is-just-a-tool/
 Epoch Times, July 5, 2020 37 Shot, 3 Dead Overnight on July 4 in New York: Police Sergeants Benevolent Association said that 37 people were shot within 24 hours over the July 4 holiday. At least three of those people have died, the union said.
 Andy Gill, “Redefining The Forth of July”; July 3, 2020 Patheos; https://www.patheos.com/blogs/andygill/redefining-the-fourth-of-july/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Best+of+Patheos&utm_content=57
 Not including those driven by selfish choices and criminal intent.
John Blake of CNN, July 4, 2020; “Our country is in chaos. But it’s a great time to be an American,” https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/04/us/fourth-july-america-blake/index.html
 Ezra Taft Benson, Cleon Skousen, etc.
 See also the last two articles by this author: