While racking my brain for something to write about today, my dog Roxy went under my chair and began licking my toes. I’m pretty sure a digital pet doesn’t do that. And depending on your personality, that is either an advantage or disadvantage of real pets. Some of us remember the first digital pet craze – the Giga Pet. I never thought twice about them, as they seemed strange to me at the time (and I was in high school). But today I’d like to explore what digital pets or real pets mean to a Christian.
God cares about animals (see Genesis 1, 2, the end of the book of Jonah, etc.). I’m not saying whether there is (or isn’t) a doggy heaven – that’s not something the Bible appears to talk about. What I want to understand is how Christians relate to pets or digital pets, and perhaps why.
I think based on Genesis 1, a person can say that pets are imperfect companions to people – but companions none the less. Animals in agrarian cultures tend to play a much more important role than they do in our information culture of North America. People can have interesting relationships with animals, not to mention strange relationships with animals. But the Bible puts some limitation on human relationships to animals, they certainly help people work, and provide companionship but not sexual pleasure (Lev 18:23). That’s not a problem for most of us.
Then digital pets came along in the late 1990s, and offered some of the same benefits without the accompanying odors and stains. Oh, and they were cheaper to feed too. People could train their little digital pets, keep them in their pocket, and show them off – just like real pets. But, are they really a good replacement?
My dog requires maintenance. She’s a miniature schnauzer and needs to be groomed (brushed) daily to keep from getting matted hair. She needs a bath when she stinks after I leave her outside in the rain. She needs food and water. Roxy also needs a fair bit of exercise. But, she also provides affection for the family. She provides funny antics. For me, she acts as an exercise partner too. Occasionally she barks and keeps unwanted pests out of the yard. Okay, she barks a lot.
I’m betting most dog owners have a love-hate relationship with their dog. The other day Roxy chewed up my daughter’s sandals while I had my headphones on (anger!). But our relationships with real animals mirror relationships with people in a lot of ways: there is conflict, resolution, there are needs and there are good times. You don’t get that from a digital pet. In fact I think I’d throw a digital pet against the wall eventually. Seriously. It needs a lot of attention, and its just an annoying little thing that can’t show me how much it loves me by licking my toes while I write to people I don’t know on the internet. Just like a lot of technology, it co-opts the potential of the thing it replaces. It has potential to be a companion and require attention. But the lack of ability to convey affection means that the technology loses everything but the negative potential, frustration, etc.
You might have sensed this story is about more than just digital pets and the christian life. As Christians we need to look at a technology for what it promises and what it can deliver, but also what it ultimately costs and what its shortcomings are. We need to realize that there really is no technology that’s “even better than the real thing.”