Virtual Reality and The Empathy Machine

Each epoch dreams the one to follow.

-Jules Michelet, “Avenir! Avenir!”

Every age has utopian dreams. These virtual worlds provide escapist allure, and they create a space in which to sort the residue left over from unrealised hopes. Travel literature is one such example, born out of colonial journeys into the frontier. At the same time as the colonial machine generated gold-plated mirrors for the colonisers and chains for the colonised, stories of life among harsh, exotic locations and idiosyncratic folklore were being brought back to Europe in books. Since then, the traveller’s search for authenticity beyond each new imagined frontier has mirrored this creation of spectacle of relations of exploitation. Empathy, too, was here- in the attempt to reconnect within a meaningful world that capitalism had torn asunder, to turn disaster into a meaningful story.

Virtual Reality enters a world of increasing inequality that marks itself aesthetically, geographically and politically. This is also a world in which the ever-narrowing wealthy classes are getting bored of telling stories about themselves. And thus they look for new mediums and dreamworlds which may express the emotions suppressed or omitted from bourgeois life. Chris Milk, the co-founder of Within, a Silicon Valley creative start-up championing the role of VR in sparking charitable virtue, lays out a rich semiotics for this new medium. His most important coinage is that of the ’empathy machine,’ a term that foregrounds the cyborg nature of VR. The intended connotation is perhaps a kind of empathy-through-machine, however it also suggests empathy as a process of production whose end-product will remain forever tied to the technology it emerged from.

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The Empathy Machine, designed by Jeremy Simmons for the HKRB

Chris Milk wishes to disrupt storytelling, which he sees as trapped within traditional frames. There is no doubt that with VR we are seeing new frames come into being, and they are being ushered in by a shock that attempts to make old frames redundant. Milk references the Lumière brothers film that shocked audiences by showing a train ready to burst through the screen. However, he acknowledges that the real question is whether the medium of VR will evolve following the initial spectacle into something that can continue to engage its audiences’ emotional constellations in the years and contexts that follow.

At the moment, Milk is capitalising on the novelty of VR by channelling it into the intense emotion that accompanies such a heightened exposure to another’s suffering. This strategy is working, insofar as it has spurred wealthy investors to donate to his UN collaborators in making his flagship humanitarian “films” (Waves of Grace, Clouds Over Sidra, The Displaced) which respectively concern the collective tragedy of Ebola, the urgent, precarious crossroads of life in a refugee camp, and the lives of three displaced children. The sentimentalism of the first two films cannot be overstated. A style breathing deep melancholy and a somewhat overwrought soundtrack invites this kind of emotion in almost any three-second segment of either film, however mundane or detached from the overall narrative. However, a consequence is that we begin to experience the new medium and the experiences therein as primarily an emotional medium, and continue to enjoy it on the condition that it provides us with the same sense of catharsis. One must wonder whether this is the level on which audiences wish to connect with the wretched of the Earth.

Susan Sontag’s critique of war photography in Regarding the Pain of Others offers a valuable perspective on the effect of such overt sentimentality on a medium. This book is situated in the period beginning with the Vietnam War when war photography became widespread and used to elicit emotional responses that could be harnessed towards pacifist or interventionist politics. This display of the horrors of the Vietnam War meaningfully fuelled the anti-war movement, however the long-term effect was that the shock of such photographs, while still producing some emotional reaction, over time desensitised audiences to their call to action and to the subtle political messages contained within such photographs. Over time, this desensitisation reaches the point where it takes images as shocking as those of Aylan Kurdi lying drowned on a beach or of the cruel treatment of prisoners at the Don Dale detention centre to bring about a collective political response to crises.

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The double-sided nature of shock which produces at times repulsion to the violence depicted and at times attraction to the emotional rush ensures that the photograph’s reception remains structure around the viewers’ field of desire. The exploitative gaze replaces the perceptive gaze. No wonder, then, that such photographs have been subsequently used to entertain readers and sell newspapers.

Perhaps Milk’s sentimentalist cinematography does not do justice to his ambitions, which reflect those of much of the VR community. In his words, traditional storytelling relies on frames which are ultimately just windows, and we must step through the window and into the world itself. In other words, he wishes immersion to take the place of communication in storytelling. VR is, according to him, the last medium.

This epistemology is at odds with reflection, understanding and critique, activities that in their own way acknowledge that our ability to grasp the truth is at every moment limited by the way we see the world. Any attempt to get closer to the truth- the core of any moment, experience or state of being- involves a kind of detective work- piecing together fragments acquired at different moments or from different perspectives to obtain a more complete understanding. The crucial and properly dialectical observation here is that, just as every new understanding takes us closer to the truth, it acts as a more refined filter on it. In this manner, the picture never reaches the point of perfect alignment to its background where its frame simply dissolves, but rather it reassembles itself before a new frame.

Storytelling fulfils precisely this detective role as it attempts to draw a path to the truth through language. It embraces the limits of language, or how its modes of understanding fall short of grasping the truth. Thus, it functions by creating a space for the imagination, which goes beyond language towards the truth. Whether a story is true or fictional, its telling relies on fictional tropes intended to convey that which is absent from view, concealed from the mere facts, remembered as a past event not yet fully understood, or simply non-existent, by calling upon the imagination. In this way, we are led to the truth of a story not by its facticity, but through the medium of storytelling. This is readily accepted insofar as the audience willingly suspends disbelief before the storyteller.

Yet Milk dismisses this suspension of disbelief as a communication gap between the audience’s consciousness and the reality of the story. At the very point that Milk sets an absurdly high expectation for the medium, we can also begin to read his work against the grain to uncover the latent potential of VR. Contrary to Milk’s understanding, storytelling already creates a position with which the reader or listener may occupy and indeed empathise with. The position of confidant, one who is called upon to interpret and understand the story, and with one’s imagination deal with those uncertainties that its characters face, assumes the shape of a real-life subject, and thus involves the reader or listener to engage with the story as with real life. Milk’s films, and much emerging virtual reality, carry out this same process by immersing the viewer within the sensorium of another person.

In this formal manner, VR is not so different from the books, films and oral traditions it attempts to move beyond. Yet it reveals something about this particular formal aspect of storytelling that was perhaps less apparent in past mediums. When one puts on a VR headset and looks through another’s eyes, a blind spot remains which correlates with the very subject we appear within- their mouth, eyes, and embodied subjectivity are all hidden from view. The process of reacting to the same external stimuli as this subject may appear natural and unmediated, yet it relies on the same suspension of disbelief as in literature. This is not immediately apparent from the viewer’s experience in the VR sensorium as Milk portrays it.

The enduring sense within both Clouds Over Sidra and Waves of Grace, and to a lesser extent The Displaced, is of being in a dream, a dream of a world where every image correlates with its content. The relation of the characters and symbols of the films to the subject is already a given, unquestioned, as in a dream. In this dream, the authentic humanity of the subject is assured as its premise, and in their gaze those around them appear to be acting upon their essential nature- this is who we are, this is what the world is really like. Language becomes almost redundant as things speak for themselves. It is in this precise sense of the hyperreality of the experience that, in spite of their tragic contexts, utopia can be found in these films, and the prayer/narration in Waves of Grace particularly resonates with a style that appears to disclose some kind of heaven. This is the sublimation of Milk’s empathy, the attempt to depict a world that speaks to us precisely in the manner we expect it to as a pre-defined subject. Imagination and storytelling have little role to play as the viewer’s connection to truth is all but assumed.

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Yet this idealised image can only sustain itself as long as the viewer’s experience remains enclosed within the parameters of meaning given by the film. Any exploration of the true and distinct nature of VR as a medium must begin by going beyond these parameters.

Walter Benjamin writes of photography:

Structural qualities, cellular tissues, which form the natural business of technology and medicine are all much more closely related to the camera than to the atmospheric landscape or the expressive portrait. At the same time photography uncovers in this material physiognomic aspects of pictorial words which live in the smallest things, perceptible yet covert enough to find shelter in daydreams, but which, once enlarged and capable of formulation, show the difference between technology and magic to be entirely a matter of historical variables.

No meaningful world can remain hermetically sealed; any attempt to depict it inevitably absorbs the latent materiality and the mode of depiction of the medium upon which it is depicted. From the seams and limits of its enclosure emerges something akin to the “material physiognomic aspects of pictorial words which live in the smallest things” which Benjamin describes. In casting one’s gaze upon the aspects of each VR experience that defy structural determination, these “smallest things” emerge. It is at the point where the medium goes beyond the limits of the content that one can perceive both functioning of the functioning of the medium itself, and those “material physiognomic aspects” that are normally left out of everyday experience.

This is no abstraction. To Within’s credit, various landscapes shots across their films display elements that do not fit easily within their universes of meaning, however finding such elements, among them the desert, an empty wall, or a hole in roof the kids are playing on, more often than not involves turning away from the intended focus. This particular kind of experience also takes our empathy in a certain direction. Even as one turns away, the non-visual aspects of the experience persist- the music, the narration and background noises. One continues to confront the emotions being felt by the subject in whose shoes we are standing, but as the “smallest things” enter one’s perception, one beings to wonder if they stand for something in the subject’s life that is left unsaid within the overall narrative.

This is no different from the tangible potentiality that one occasionally experiences in a crowded street- that all the faces one comes across represent not only distinct personalities, but also distinct gazes on the world and with them lives will remain forever foreign, captured in the beautiful neologism of “sonder”, which stands for ‘the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.’ Empathy that drives towards a true connection not only with the person’s emotions but also with the underlying circumstances of their lives involves both an appreciation of the richness and complexity of another’s life, alongside an appreciation of our distance from the ineffable otherness that another subject and another life represents for us.

We can only hope VR will continue to explore this latent potential. Yet what becomes clear from this discussion is that this potential will be suppressed as long as the leading artists and entrepreneurs in this field, among them Chris Milk, treat the medium with an exceptionalism that refuses to draw upon the rich critical and creative history of other forms of storytelling. Perhaps the true inheritance of this medium is to be found within the work of less ambitious artists, whose work will over time point towards an epoch to follow.

This essay was originally published on The Hong Kong Review of Books.

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