The Drone Age: Simulation Culture and the Church

Posted: March 6, 2013 in Observation Post

Drone Zone

Just outside Las Vegas sits a cluster of camouflaged trailers. Inside one trailer is Afghanistan. Inside another is Iraq. Other trailers serve as portals to Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and so on. Stepping inside one of these trailers is kind of like Lucy stepping into the wardrobe to find herself in Narnia, except instead of a fantasy land, they link us to a real war zone in another part of our world.

Sitting behind computer screens and joysticks, US military pilots fly Predator drones half a world away, conducting missions in real-time. Using cameras on board the Predators flying at 15,000 feet above Afghan territory, pilots have the ability to zero in on Taliban targets, and when given orders, launch laser-guided hellfire missiles all from the safety of a trailer in Nevada.

These “combat commuters” are officially deployed but live regular lives like the rest of us in North America. “[They] commute to work in rush-hour traffic, slip into a seat in front of a bank of computers, ‘fly’ a warplane to shoot missiles at an enemy thousands of miles away, and then pick up the kids from school or a gallon of milk at the grocery store on his way home for dinner,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Martin in the book Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story about his time flying drone missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.

For many drone pilots, this kind of existence is surreal. They know they are in a trailer in Nevada but yet they are also just as present on a battle scene across the globe as the troops on the ground. When they press a button inside their simulated cockpit, something real happens somewhere else. They flinch when something comes at their screen but they don’t feel the speed or a hard bank to the right. And though they are able to take a life in battle, pilots are untouchable when a rocket takes down the Predator because they are not really there.

Hyperreality

When we can no longer tell the difference between reality and simulation, French philospher Jean Baudrillard calls this experience hyperreality. However, the trailers in Nevada are not the only place in our postmodern world where the gap between simulation and reality is shrinking. Simulation culture influences our professional worlds by enabling surgeons to train safely, forecasters to predict weather and stock trends, and filmmakers to create alternate worlds that educate and entertain us.

Hyperreality also influences our personal worlds by allowing us to simulate power through video games, prestige through possessions, and community though sports events (as discussed in this video). The difference between what is real and what is artificial is, at times, a blurry mess.

Baudrillard points back through history to show the significance of this cultural evolution. Before the printing press was invented, the distinction between real and counterfeit was clear. However, after duplicates of the real became easily replicated, the line between the two began to smudge. The replica was no longer viewed as counterfeit but as a duplicate and it held a value of it’s own. The computer chip further smeared the boundary between real and imitation to the point where the two are indistinguishable. The simulated may even happen before and determine reality, diminishing its value.

“It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real,” says Baudrillard.1

Simulation culture not only permeates our professional and personal lives but influences our spiritual lives as well.

Drones for Jesus

While Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and the Easter bunny are obvious examples of the hyperreal replacing the real, these are not the primary modes of simulation that we engage in church life.

“In pop Christianity it is the rage for an ever sexier way of making Jesus seem cool and relevant,” says Carl Raschke, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.2 The stage, the lights, the LCD projectors, the smoke machines, the rock bands–even the organ and choir­­–all build an experience for the viewer, luring them into the spectacle of worship. Crosses and religious icons have been substituted with TV screens displaying mesmerizing graphics that enhance song lyrics and scripture text.

We become vampires of scripture, sucking up the last drops of the pastor’s sermon without ever opening the bible for ourselves. Many pastors rely more heavily on books about scripture than on scripture itself when writing sermons.

Well-used words like “gospel” and “community” give an impression to realities we aren’t actually comfortable spelling­–or living–out. We tattoo our bodies with symbols and languages we do not understand. We don’t tithe because our money is used up on the commercial goods we rely upon to define us.

So subtle are these hyperrealities that we do not recognize our dependency on them to drown out the static of our souls. How easy it is to simulate the activities of worship without engaging our heart or mind or spirit. While at church (or movie theater or sporting event–it doesn’t matter where we are) our culture tells us that it’s OK to check reality at the door and engage in something that is not unreal, but more than real–something hyperreal.

Paul warns believers not to exchange the truth of God for a lie or worship the image–the replica, the simulation–of God above the creator.3 Too often, we live like drone pilots, doing Sunday warfare, flying high on an amped up worship experience, then spending the rest of the week in a Vegas-like state feeding our insatiable appetites. But are we really living? Are we really worshipping? Are we really engaged with the people we call community?

Immersed in simulation culture, our battle is to love deeply, to serve sacrificially, and to worship truthfully. We must fight to be present; to give our children more attention than our smartphones and TVs, to experience significant moments with others instead of tweet about them, to make memories instead of photos, to kindle desire for our partner rather than a digital image, to read more of the Bible than books about the Bible. This is nothing less than spiritual warfare as these simulations beat the droning cadence of narcissism’s march into the spiritual realm.

1  Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 2.

2  Carl Raschke, Hunger and Love – The “Logic of Late Capitalism” Unwinds into the Postmodern Apocalypse (The Other Journal, November 28, 2011)

3 Romans 1:25

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