Present and accounted for?

Last week the BBC reported on an experimental venture of the European Commission called ‘beaming’.[1]  The idea is this: given the time, expense, and environmental impact of business, medical, and other types of travel, is it possible to replace the actual presence of another person by an avatar (robotic or virtual) manipulated by the would-be traveller?  In order to accomplish this futuristic feat, researchers have developed a body suit that reads the movements of the wearer and translates those into corresponding movements in the avatar.  The avatar is outfitted with microphones and cameras to give the wearer of the suit a 3D view and soundscape of the other location.  The hope is that, as the technology develops, business persons will be able to conduct business virtually, surgeons will be able to perform complex medical procedures on patients on the other side of the globe, far flung families could keep in touch with one another, gamers could collaborate on games in ways heretofore impossible—the possibilities are nearly limitless.

The creators and developers of this technology hope that ‘BEAMING will for the first time give people a real sense of physically being in a remote location with other people, and vice versa—without actually travelling’.[2]  This pursuit holds a lot of promise and makes sense economically, however it raises questions about the limits of technology.   Can a virtual traveller replace a real traveller?

Having said that, I think as development moves forward, we will all be amazed at the realistic quality of the avatars.  It will probably be something akin to the first time someone sees an animatronic representation of a dinosaur, dead president, or other long since expired notable.  But I believe there is something which cannot be escaped: no matter how realistic the avatar looks or moves or sounds, it will always be little more than an expensive and highly capable puppet.  This, in reality, is what is occurring in beaming.  Expensive puppets are being developed that can be manipulated by puppeteers at a great distance.

Now, don’t get me wrong, puppets can be amazing.  Need I point any further than to Elmo?  In the best puppets there is the spark of life that belies the fact that they are, in fact, being manipulated by a person.  And, as such, the essence of that puppeteer is conveyed through the puppet.  But the puppet is not and never will be the puppeteer.

In some ways, I see this whole pursuit as reminiscent of the building of a modern day tower of Babel.   The people of Babel believed that they had the technical know-how and drive to build a tower so impressive that it would be able to bridge the gap between earth and heaven.  The goal of the developers of beaming is, perhaps, less audacious but somewhat similar.  They are seeking to use technology to bridge the gap of space between far removed individuals.

Scripture indicates that the gap between heaven and earth can only be bridged and has been bridged by Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking on the very form of man.  Jesus allowed himself to be enfleshed in the clothes of humanity in order to reveal God to humanity and to redeem and renew the same through His death and resurrection.  In response to the charge that He was little more than a human puppet in the guise of a human (a divine avatar), the Scriptures reveal him to be fully God and fully man.

In a way, the current attempts to ‘beam’ ourselves are a little like the incarnation  in reverse.  God, who as Spirit is omnipresent, limited himself to particularity in the person of Jesus and we, feeling constrained by our inherent particularity, are seeking to be present in more than one place at once.  Our attempts may get close (Babel’s tower may have touched the clouds), but, ultimately, will they (like the tower) fall short?  What impact will this pursuit have on our understanding of the nature of humanity?  What other theological considerations does this raise?


[1] “How to ‘Beam’ a Robot Avatar,” BBC, May 10, 2012, sec. Technology,



  • Before making his way to St Andrews, Dave played the part of a peasant and a street sweep at a Renaissance Festival and Walt Disney World respectively. However, his interest in performance and communication were also put to use for over a decade as a corporate communications trainer in Charlotte, NC where he and his wife, Carrie, lived before moving overseas. Since then, they’ve welcomed their daughters Molly and Abigail into the world and Dave completed his M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. At the moment he’s busy researching the theological significance of embodied expression in pursuit of a PhD from St Andrews.

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  1. says: Travis Buchanan

    Thanks for drawing our attention to this development Dave. Your observation about beaming as being like ‘the incarnation in reverse’ is particularly insightful. There is a lot that could be explored along those lines and in comparison to Babel as well.

    1. says: Dave Reinhardt

      Thanks for your comment, Travis! The whole beaming project has stirred up all sorts of thoughts and questions well beyond the theological. So many, in fact, that the developers have been engaging ethicists and lawyers in trying to foresee and address potential difficulties and challenges:

  2. says: Clay Davis

    Very interesting perspective Dave. Your tie to the incarnation is especially helpful. The primary sin of Babel was a disobedience to the charge God gave to Noah in Genesis 9:1 to multiply and spread out on the earth. It is clear from Genesis 11:4 that they did not want to “be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Other sins are at work here, such as their goal to “make a name for ourselves,” but the disobedience of hovering together plays into your thoughts here. A civilization that does not spread out will eventually implode, as the depravity of our cities demonstrates. The implications for spreading out, but then coming back together in avatar form, pose new questions not necessarily dealt with in the Babel story.

    Leonard Sweet has expressed an emphasis on the sense of touch in an world of avatars. Touching a body may be the only way to know the difference between an actual human and its avatar. He emphasizes this in an effort to push the church towards the ancient practice of physical touch in our ministries.

  3. says: Dave Reinhardt

    You’ve given me food for thought, Clay. One of my first thoughts is that, arguably, the reason Noah’s descendants desired to ‘stay put’ was the fear of venturing beyond the perceived safety of the city. This is understandable, you can typically find the things you need in a city. However, their desire for the comfort of the known obscured their vision of the adventure of the unknown in the care of God.
    The developers of beaming argue that this technology allows for good stewardship of the environment and of economic resources. In light of this, I’m not sure there is anything sinful about the desire motivating the project. What is somewhat concerning is the idea that this technology has the potential to lull us into thinking that having a ‘sense’ of being present is essentially the same as actually being present. It seems like it makes concrete what previously was merely a damaging view of humanity: a Platonic-style dualism that fails to recognize the unity of body and soul.
    Thanks for your comment and for getting me thinking even more about this!

    1. says: Clay Davis

      I agree with you Dave that the motivation for new technology is usually not sinful. It is the moral use of that technology that is the problem. Technology in itself cannot be moral, but it can be used for good or bad. An example of how an avatar could be used in a sinful way is if it was presented as an actual human, to dishonestly stand in for a human. The morality of technology usually follows after its inception, since the inventors do not consider morality in their design. It is the society at large that determines various moralities, such as the proper usage of cell phones, of which the rules are still blurry and still somewhat unknown to many people.

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