The Ethics of Empathy in Virtual Reality
I had the pleasure of participating in an Empathy and Ethics Seminar hosted by Professor Brian Winston of The University of Lincoln School of Film and Media. Our focus was on documentary and non-fiction media in the age of the digital, and more specifically, VR and augmented reality technologies. So many, and in particular Chris Milk, have hailed VR as the ultimate ‘empathy machine’ capable of deepening empathy and recognition of another person’s humanity. But what really are we to make of this technology, the capacity for producing or enhancing empathy, and the ethics that attend it? Once we can put aside the all-too-familiar bid to techno-utopianism, what are the possibilities and limits? What are the questions we should be asking?
Participants included David Cooke, ex Director British Board of Film Censors; Nathasha Fernando, CAMRI, Westminster University, London; Prof Roderick Orner, Visiting Professor, University of Lincoln; Dr Ola Ogunyemi, School of Journalism, University of Lincoln; Dr Orna Raviv, Unit for History and Philosophy of Art, Design and Technology, Shenkar College; Professor Mandy Rose, Director Digital Cultures Research Centre , University of the West of England; Dr Pratap Rughani, College of Communication, University of the Arts, London Dr Willemien Sanders, Department of Media and Culture, University of Utrecht; and Dr Mario Slugan, Postdoctoral Associate Fellow at University of Warwick.
Posted here is a combination of my preliminary provocation and the comments I offered at the close of the conference, which took into account conversation and presentations over the two days as well as my initial questions, which revolve around the ethics of empathy and its uses as a political emotion.
My comments and provocation take two parts. On the one hand, I have my questions regarding empathy, and on the other, the questions regarding these new technologies and what possibilities or new concerns they deliver. As someone who has been preoccupied with the uses of screen media in bearing witness to human rights abuses to cultivate a popular understanding of human rights and to mobilise audiences, my interests in these issues tend to the pro-social aspects and expectations around these technologies.
Witnessing and Empathy: History and the Problems of Empathy
Expectations around witnessing and response—that conviction that seeing leads to knowing and to doing— are persistent and resurface with each development in communications technology. Before we even attend to the questions of VR, AR, and iDocs, we need to historicise and contend with this legacy of expectation around the act of bearing witness. We need to think about how it can be fleshed out in terms of aesthetic tactics: what are the tropes, narratives, genres deployed and how to they interact with existing interpretive and rhetorical grids? And we need to think about contexts: What are the conditions of preproduction, production, distribution, and exhibition that channel interest and response into action. Many places to come in, especially when one considers the dimensions of participation.
If the goal or result is empathy, we need to investigate further. Empathy is not quite emotion, not quite cognitive process, nor even quite physical, and yet it is a combination of all, as it signals understanding (or at least) willingness to understand the feelings and conditions of another. It suggests identification and shared perspectives. It can even refer to the physical, visceral responses invoked by witnessing the experiences of another. And as we define this term, we’ll also need to clarify the terms that get bundled in: sympathy, compassion and pity in particular, as each hails a different type of emotional or affective response, each with attendant power dynamics—particularly around the politics of pity.
Beyond questions of definition, come those of use and the ethics of this experience or emotion: Leaving aside my aforementioned definitions, empathy is often best described as placing oneself in another’s shoes:
- But what happens to that person when the spectator or listener does this? Could there be something inherently narcissistic in the experience? Is there a way in which the person, often dehumanised if I’m thinking about human rights advocacy media, is further dehumanised and objectified in the process: made fungible in the economy of ‘rescue’ or recue performance (not unlike the phenomena Saidiya Hartman has noted in relation to slave testimony)?
- What are the problems with the tropes used to cultivate this ‘relatability’, particularly when it works alongside the predispositions of the viewer? We have been speaking about Levinas throughout the seminar: Is it really about seeing ourselves in someone else, or recognising the radical alterity of the other and experiencing responsibility regardless? Surely to expect the person in need of aid to be like us, or to behave in accordance with our desires, is to miss an ethical trick or moral obligation.
- What problems inhere to the experience of empathy itself? Can questions of spectator complicity (as well as the complicity of the platform in terms of tech, aesthetics, and framing) be elided when identification with the suffering other alone is sought? And what happens when this discourse seems to suggest that empathy is an end to itself: it alone is the goal in shaping this testimonial encounter between the witness and the spectator? How essential is empathy to taking responsibility and action for what has been seen and heard?
- And a final question regarding empathy: Why is empathy so central now? Why is empathy the emotion/experience held up in the discourse? Why not outrage, or solidarity, or even radicalisation? I think now of the longstanding presence of ‘mobilising shame’ in human rights discourse, which may have focussed on the perpetrator, but nonetheless seems to have vanished in favour of empathy. What uses does empathy serve that we may not fully be appreciating in the focus on the prosocial uses of VR?
What new does the tech bring?
This is a big question and again, one that requires historicising. Interactive media are nothing new, and each has brought benefits and challenges to making and to community engagement. So what specific questions should we begin to ask to understand this moment and these new technological developments?
Constantly on my mind has been about who is using this and how that can be used to direct action. Who has access to this tech? What kinds of impediments are there to using it and using it for collective action? To date, the learning curve for each individual experience can feel quite steep, and to say individual is to remember that with VR, this is an essentially isolated experience at the moment: Where can the collective engagement come in? Is this merely to be enhanced clicktivism, which has its function, or can there be more?
Another question I have is what exactly the position is of the spectator/ user (and now I know I must be reading Kate Nash’s work on witnessing and VR). There seem to be two potential positions identified in VR: one is the simulated experience of or presence in another and the other is that of enhanced witnessing, where the position embodied is specifically one of spectatorship not being. For instance, I think here of Netflix as app on my Oculus Go. When I use it, it is not for 360 video or VR because these files aren’t yet available. Rather, it plunges me into a lodge where I am sat on a sofa in front of a television. I can look out the window to a lovely mountain view or look down to see a coffee table. This is immersion in spectatorship
And I wonder if here is a place that could inform the potential around the encounter with the other. While VR promises to close the gap between spectatorship and experience, between distant suffering and presence, or between us and them, what about those attempts to close the gap that enhance the sense of distance. I think here about Hunger in LA, where one stands on a food line and through verité, uncut audio and CGI recreation witnesses a person experience a diabetic seizure. The reports describe wanting and evening gesturing to help, but realising one is unable to. Can there possibly be a benefit not in pretending to be the other or with the other, but in this persistent sort of uncanny valley. How might this experience call attention to the imaginative acts that media technology, experience, and interpretation? Where might frustration play a role? (And with this I also know I must turn to Homay King and her disruption of the masterful gaze; could it be that this continued frustration somehow confronts that gaze that presumes command over all it surveys?)
This isn’t to say there won’t be those projects that seek to elide seeing, being, doing— using all the problematic arrows in their quiver, but could there be potential in this experience that seems to linger in these projects?
There are more questions, surely, and I hope that if they do come to mind as you read this, you leave them in the comments.
— Leshu Torchin