It didn’t seem particularly ominous last week when a five-year-old boy named Joshua who always greets me after Mass said, “We have a new game! It’s...” I was interrupted from sharing his excitement by an even younger parishioner who tugged on my other arm, so I excused myself from Joshua and further details of his game.
That same evening, my dinner was late enough that I could enjoy it on the porch, where soon I was distracted by cars behaving strangely. Instead of the usual racing through the rectory driveway shortcut, they pulled straight up behind the rectory and sat there like they were trying to see into the guest room. About the fourth time this happened, I came down off my porch to ask what was going on. The young driver explained that he was playing the same game that Joshua had told me about that morning. There on his phone’s screen was the crucified Christ statue on our back wall, but with an animated creature next to it.
The next morning’s paper reported this very game as a phenomenon that was sweeping the English-speaking world. It apparently projects imaginary animated creatures onto images of actual places, challenging the player to find and “capture” them. The news reported how players of the game were so fixated by what they saw on their screens that they were injuring themselves by bumping into objects or falling.
Since then my housemates and I have found groups of people loitering by the rectory, apparently in hopes of scoring points or something similar. If I speak to them, they are startled at the interruption that reveals their playground as somebody’s home, and their backdrop a sacred place.
It has been just over hundred years since screens with pictures moving on them became part of our experience. From marveling at the effective representation of reality, people have acquiesced into accepting the projection itself as a reality. Now screens are ubiquitous and indispensable. As I compose this letter, I stare at a screen. It’s not just for entertainment anymore!
Already it is common to see two people at a dinner table, each engrossed in his own screen and seemingly oblivious of the actual person present with him. Some people lament their own dependence; others lament only what would interrupt their fixation.
This has been the case for longer than we would like to admit. Long before most people had personal, portable devices that displayed almost anything instantly on their screens, the image on the screen held strong influence over people’s thoughts and actions. And people who appeared on screens gained authority far beyond what is reasonable: already it is four decades since “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” became a successful endorsement. This tyranny of what is seen gives extraordinary power to anyone who can effectively project an illusion on a screen.
People blithely assume that they are masters of the eyes and minds that these images and projections fill, and that they have and exercise right discretion over what they believe and disbelieve. Believe that of yourself only if you believe it of the people who fell off a precipice pursuing an animated creature while playing Pokémon Go. Who controls what is on the screen, controls also human behavior.
If people are injuring themselves and ignoring their friends because artificial images on a screen lead them to pay no attention to the realities that can be seen, how much more injury and loss is accruing because of a taught unwillingness or trained inability to pay attention to realities that cannot be seen? It is the devil’s most potent trick to convince people he does not exist; it is not by any means his only trick.
How can any of us know what to believe, when our eyes are so readily complicit in our deception? We do far better to believe our ears: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (Jn 6:68)