The Medium is Not the Message

By Ross Field


Steven Pinker in his work “the Better Angels of our Nature” describes how the creation of the printing press and publishing of novels helped to create empathy and lessened violence in the general populace. As a result of this technological invention, more people had access to literature providing a way for people to access a realm previously deprived to them: the inner thoughts and feelings of another individual. This created heightened levels of empathy in readers as they shared the triumphs and miseries of characters. Furthermore, books became seen as providing the means of creating political awareness and a call for action.


Similar to the example above, it is proposed by its supporters, that Virtual Reality (VR) is the new epoch in human empathy. VR is a medium that creates a lifelike experience, as users have a 360 degree field of vision, and unlike traditional media such as film, VR provides increased proximity and intimacy to the subjects being filmed. It is specifically this feature which has led to VR being heralded as “the ultimate empathy machine” by Chris Milk in his 2015 TED talk.


The most famous example in the use of VR creating empathy is the 2015 film “Clouds over Sidra”, filmed in Za’atri refugee camp, Jordan and focuses on the perspective of a 12 year old girl experiencing daily life in the refugee camp. This was commission by the UN and released at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2015. Following the success of this VR film in raising donations, most NGOs are now commissioning films by VR production companies and the UN has even gone so far as to create a division called the United Nations Virtual Reality (UNVR).


It is ironic that VR, which was originally funded by the US military to desensitize soldiers in preparation for battle and to kill is now being heralded as the medium to revolutionize charities. To challenge the supporters of VR I dispute this claim of VR becoming a new tool or stage in human empathy, I do so for the following reasons:  It is dubious whether VR does in fact create levels of empathy higher than normal technology. If in fact VR does create empathy this is only a limited form of empathy. Finally, is empathy a desirable end point?


The supporting factor for this belief in VR creating empathy is that by creating proximity to refugees through virtual experiences it will automatically create empathy. However, unlike a experience in the real world in which people come to the feeling of empathy through their own thought process or pattern and as a result of different triggers. In VR people are forced into a certain rigid form empathy as they are held hostage by the film, as their gaze is controlled and dictated by the filmmaker. Furthermore, the VR user never does really experience what it is like to say live in a refugee camp, as they are aware that this is virtual reality. Therefore users can have these experiences safe in the knowledge that they are temporarily experiencing this in a warm room and after it is done return to a home of relative luxury. What is not provided in VR, that is provided in mediums such as literature, is a depth of emotional engagement and an openness to interpretation, without which, this could lead to VR being called a technologically advanced form of voyeurism and even more severely as a form of disaster tourism. As a result, those who choose to use VR and donate to charity are going to be those who are already aware and sympathetic to the charities cause.


So far the level of empathy VR creates has been measured by increases in monetary donations, however, outside of this it is impossible to truly measure the feeling of empathy. It is a well known physiological trait that it is much easier for people to empathise with others that are seen as similar to themselves or if not than a universally accepted human emotion is tapped. For instance, “Cloud over Sidra” focuses on the narrator of a young girl as a way to create obvious empathy, this has been used time and again as children are seen as defenceless and innocent creating maternal or protective instincts in viewers. This focus on a universal common ground is similar to the tactics of previous media sources, and shows that VR is not powerful enough to overcome firmly held beliefs, this may include the idea that there is a vast difference between Western Christian culture and Islamic culture and its adherents.


Finally, even if VR was to live up to this classification as the empathy machine, is empathy really the desirable trait for helping refugees and other subjects of VR films. Instead of empathy what could be more helpful is rational decision making when it comes to helping others. Letting emotion control the reaction to humanitarian crises has been shown to increase problems and create future ones as policies and aid have veered far from their original intentions. Furthermore, if empathy has been created but no adequate outlet is provided this can lead to apathy as many of the crises in the world today are seen as too big for individuals to tackle and governments failing to act. As a result, many people fail to do anything as even attempting to address these problems seem pointless. However, if a rational decision making mind-set is adopted these crises become seen as puzzles with solutions that can take time and setbacks.


If an emotional response is desired to illicit a response from an apathetic public, that emotion should be sympathy. To highlight the distinction between empathy and sympathy, empathy is the idea of, “how does it make ME feel” rather than the sympathetic feeling of  “how do they feel?” As empathy is a process and not an endpoint which sympathy is. I believe the fault is not with the changes in technology as it will not be long before the medium of VR is no longer sufficient to create shock, but becomes passé like other previous media sources. Instead the fault lies with societal changes. I believe that by using VR to focus on empathy, this shows the narcissism and a sad measure of the times that those that have access to VR have lost touch of common humanity, and that citizens of developed countries are so inundated with media and imagery that new technology must be used to jolt them into feeling empathy. This means that what has been lost from modern culture is the idea that sympathy rather than empathy could be created from purely imagining the plight of fellow humans not matter their difference in nationality, race, religion or gender and choosing to act.