I went this week to Island Park, just outside Yellowstone, to watch television.
Well, something like that anyway.
If you have ever been to Harriman State Park in Island Park in the winter, you know it is one of the glories of the American West.
I went cross-country skiing there with family recently, and it is hard to imagine a more serene place. Trumpeter swans bob on the surface of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. Snow falls, collecting on the frozen Silver Lake and dressing the Ponderosa pine in white.
At the halfway point of our journey, there was a warming hut — an old cabin really — with hot chocolate and maps and restrooms — and a TV showing nature videos.
It intrigued me that most in our cabin were more interested in virtual nature on TV than the subtle glory of the Henry’s Fork just outside the cabin’s large window. Almost no one took any time to use the expensive binoculars set up to observe nature just outside.
The virtual world was more compelling, or so it seemed, than the real one, and in that moment I saw one of the main dangers of our strange, mediated society: It’s too easy.
Now, don’t get me wrong — technology is a great blessing, enabling us to learn, to communicate and to move forward the work of the Lord. Many games and technologies can bring people together and enhance relationships.
But too often, virtual communication technology robs us of real life.
I am not much of a skier, so I fell down once on a four-foot hill in Harriman. My pole bent; my lower leg cramped. It took a few minutes to reconnect my boots to my skis.
It was frustrating and a little humiliating. No one else fell down.
And so life always is. With most great experiences comes a little pain.
With technology, all the pain is removed — or hidden at least.
With video games, I might die a thousand deaths falling off impossible heights in virtual warcrafts. Then, I can try again as though nothing had happened. Money floats on the air. Injuries don’t hurt. Villains all deserve what they get. My innate goodness justifies my violence. There is no need for repentance. No consequences for sin.
With texting, I can have great, fun conversations and useful messages, but the ease of communication might mean I can pretend to avoid interpersonal richness and pain. Many now hear stories of the friendships and loves ended through Facebook or text messages. Few seem to talk anymore.
Isn’t the allegedly harmless nature of virtual porn among its biggest problems. If one person, photoshopped to look better, isn’t good enough, then another and another can be used, thrown out and found virtually on the Internet. In the end, it is all a selfish, empty lie.
With life and with relationships comes the richness of falling down — and the true joy of work and of getting back up again. With life comes the need for repentance, the task of living and facing truth, and the value of seeing the Henry’s Fork for oneself.
I don’t remember much about what was on TV in that warming hut. I do remember the Henry’s Fork.
Life deserves to be lived, not watched on television.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.