Culture At Large

The New York Times’ redemptive use of virtual reality

Scott Hoezee

The thick bundle that is the Sunday edition of the New York Times arrived in our driveway as usual last weekend, but this time it had an extra pouch attached. Inside was a Google Cardboard — a small, rectangular, virtual reality viewer. After downloading a video from the Times onto your smartphone and then sliding your phone into a notch on the viewer, you could look through the lenses and watch a 360-degree, panoramic video that responded to the movement of your head or body. You could literally look up and down and to all sides, even turning around to see what was “behind” you.

The VR technology is dazzling; with little more than a cardboard box and a smartphone, you are engulfed in a visual experience that can leave you a little dizzy. The purpose was far more serious, however, as the video is part of a New York Times Magazine series profiling three children who have been displaced by war or persecution. There is Hana, who traveled to Lebanon from Syria; at 12, she now helps her family subsist by picking cucumbers for local farmers. There is 11-year-old Oleg, from Ukraine, whose family had to flee the intense fighting and shelling, only to return to their village some while later and find it in ruins. And finally, in South Sudan, 9-year-old Chuol fled with his mother and grandmother to an island in a swamp to escape the terror and violence of that country’s civil war.

The articles tell you the stories of these children; the virtual reality video places you at their sides, as they wade through dangerous waters, pick cucumbers, walk past piles of spent artillery shells and scurry to pick up food packages that have just been dropped into a field by a large jet roaring overhead.

For Jesus, seeing was always the first step toward reaching out.

The Times billed this experiment as a new level in journalism, something that may become commonplace. Whether or not that happens, Christians should welcome this development, as it literally broadens our Christian vision. After all, in the Bible we read about Jesus “lifting up His eyes” to view others with compassion. For Jesus, seeing was always the first step toward reaching out. Yet Jesus saw not only in the ordinary physical sense — anyone with well-functioning eyes can do that. Jesus saw — and now, as His disciples, we must see — more deeply, recognizing each person as bearing the image of God.   

Hopefully we can find ways to see as Jesus did, not only with the help of virtual-reality technology, but also by being fully aware of those around us and employing our imaginations. As my family watched the Times video through the VR box, looking all around Lebanon, Ukraine and South Sudan, some of us had a hard time seeing the final few moments as our vision was clouded by our tears. We lifted up our eyes and when we did, we felt compassion indeed.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, Gadgets, News & Politics, World, Justice