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Empathy – the latest gadget Silicon Valley wants to sell you
The tech world wants us to believe that virtual reality will unlock human understanding on a global scale. But it’s also a business strategy

The other week, Mark Zuckerberg visited Puerto Rico without leaving California. He stood on the roof of Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park with a virtual reality (VR) headset strapped to his face, and immersed himself in a flooded street 3,000 miles away.

Zuckerberg was livestreaming the event to promote Facebook Spaces, a “social” VR app. But it backfired, badly. Using a humanitarian crisis for a marketing stunt made many people angry. So did the tasteless incongruity of Zuckerberg’s grinning cartoon avatar set against a landscape of profound human suffering.

When Zuckerberg apologized the next day, he clarified his intentions. “One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy,” he wrote. By cultivating empathy, VR “can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world”.
It would be easy to see this statement as a canned bit of damage control, as another in a long line of half-hearted mea culpas mass-produced by Silicon Valley publicists for their frequently offending bosses. But it’s worth taking Zuckerberg seriously. When he talks about empathy, he means it.

Empathy is a word that suffuses the tech industry. The ability of an engineer or a designer to put themselves in someone else’s shoes is widely considered critical for creating a successful user experience. But with VR, empathy isn’t just a design value – it’s a sales strategy.

Empathy is the cornerstone of the tech industry’s masterplan for mainstreaming VR. It’s the “killer app” that Silicon Valley hopes will transform VR from a fringe curiosity into a technology that’s as deeply embedded in our daily lives as smartphones and social media.

VR enthusiasts often describe it as an “empathy machine”. By creating an immersive and interactive virtual environment, a VR headset can quite literally put you in someone else’s shoes. Text, image, or video offers only partial views of a person’s life – with VR, you can get inside their head. And this high-fidelity simulation, the argument goes, will make us better people by heightening our sensitivity to the suffering of others. It will make us “more compassionate”, “more connected”, and ultimately “more human”, in the words of the VR artist Chris Milk.

Now, this isn’t necessarily true. There’s no reason to assume that a virtual rendering of real suffering will generate empathy. But, as Ainsley Sutherland explains in a recent piece for BuzzFeed, it’s a very useful idea for the tech industry. Tech needs the myth of the empathy machine for two related reasons: to enhance VR’s reputation, and to expand its audience.
Violence and sex have long supplied VR with its most obvious use cases. It’s an excellent platform for gaming and porn. But these specific strengths actually damage VR’s chances of becoming a mass medium, since the technology risks becoming linked with somewhat embarrassing subcultures. Silicon Valley isn’t pouring billions of dollars into VR to give nerds a better way to play games and masturbate – and if those are the only activities that people associate with the technology, it’s dead on arrival.

Empathy offers a more promising approach. Rather than marketing VR as a gaming rig or a sex toy, Silicon Valley can pitch it as a catalyst of deep interpersonal connection. It also suits Silicon Valley’s oft-expressed desire to make the world a better place. By lending you the eyes and ears of someone suffering in San Juan, tech helps you to develop a greater sense of responsibility for them. You feel compelled to act. This is connectivity not merely as a technical concept, but a moral one.

Lately, however, this faith in connectivity has been harder to sustain. In recent months, the media and the general public has gradually awakened to the fact that using technology to connect people doesn’t automatically make the world a better place. In fact, it sometimes seems to make the world considerably worse. Trolls, racists, and fascists are using the connective capacities of Google and Facebook to inject their poisons into the body politic with alarming success. As a result, for the first time in its history, Silicon Valley is facing something of a backlash.
VR offers a way to reset the narrative. At a moment when Silicon Valley sorely needs good press, both to burnish its public image and to forestall a possible regulatory response, the myth of the empathy machine has an important role to play. It helps rehabilitate the idea that connectivity produces socially beneficial outcomes, and that Silicon Valley is an essentially humanitarian enterprise.

With VR, this humanitarianism can be quite explicit. Charities are already using the technology to coax dollars from prospective donors. At black-tie fundraisers in New York, attendees have used VR headsets to travel to destinations as distant as a Lebanese refugee camp and an Ethiopian village. And the United Nations has built its own VR app that teleports users to Syria, Liberia, Gaza and elsewhere, while encouraging them to donate money or time.
VR philanthropy supplies the tech industry with valuable rhetorical ammunition. Companies can point to these initiatives, and partner with the organizations behind them, to boost the technology’s reputation – and their own.

But the empathy machine isn’t just about driving better PR. It’s also about selling headsets – and Silicon Valley needs to sell lots of headsets. Zuckerberg recently said he wants to get one billion people into VR. This may sound impossibly ambitious, but it expresses something of the scale required to recoup Facebook’s enormous investment in the technology.

Of course, VR philanthropy probably won’t become a popular pastime. It may appeal to certain users, but it’s unlikely to spark widescale adoption.

Suffering might, however. Extreme situations are good ways to demonstrate the affective capacity of a medium. A Holocaust movie shows us the emotional power of cinema; a Facebook Live broadcast of the police murder of a black man shows us the emotional power of social video. These representations of pain, by eliciting an intense response from their viewers, teach people what a technology can do. If a medium can make you cry – as VR can, famously – it works.

This isn’t to suggest that crying is all people will do in VR. The purpose of a killer app isn’t to exhaust a platform’s potential, but to offer an entrypoint into it. Once you get a critical mass of people using a technology, they figure out other things to do with it. But VR needs a gateway drug – and virtualized misery can perform that function.
Imagine a VR live stream of a police killing. This, tragically, will soon cease to be science fiction: within years, you will be able to experience an extremely convincing simulation of what it’s like to be murdered by a cop. Will this lead to the cop’s conviction, or to meaningful criminal justice reform? Recent history suggests the answer is no. But the content will probably go viral, as its affective intensity generates high levels of user engagement. And this virality will generate revenue for the company that owns the platform.

This is a far likelier future for VR than the mass moral awakening envisioned by evangelists of the empathy machine. It’s a world where VR enables us to consume ever more realistic depictions of human anguish, whose viral circulation enriches a few big companies. It’s a world where capitalism has found yet another way to monetize its waste – where the suffering that results from a society organized for profit becomes itself a source of profit, and pain is repurposed as a site of economic production.