Physical Pain, Digital Satisfaction

virtual reality, toxic empathy, and theaters of the mind

Parallel to the rise of technology in our lives, there has been a proliferation of porn. Food porn, real estate porn, sunset porn, poverty porn—in this expanded definition, porn is anything where the image is more intense, more complete, more saturated than its referent, and thus more impactful to our senses. Of course, not all porn is created equal. Sexual porn is about personal pleasure, whereas poverty porn, or famine porn, or war-torn-country porn is about our ability to temporarily inhabit the lives of exoticized foreign children, and thus reach the virtuous gratification of empathy, and maybe even charity.

Big Tech has seized upon this moment, responding with the Google Empathy Lab and a variety of creepy “empathetic” robots. But the most compelling candidate for patron saint of empathy tech is virtual reality, which promises to inspire our commitment to the oppressed by letting us “experience” their oppression ourselves.

A new paper by digital media scholar Lisa Nakamura dives into this phenomenon of virtuous VR, which she proposes creates “toxic embodiment” rather than empathy. Nakamura recounts the recent VR films that sell themselves as healing balms for America’s racism, sexism, and inequality—an attractive product in our time of unrest! By allowing us to virtually occupy the bodies of various marginalized people, these films are supposed to make us care more about their plights.

Apparently, it takes the hyperreal possession of someone else’s physical form for us to feel compassion for them. But judging by the impact of existing visual media, even that might not be enough. Despite the extensive graphic, jarring footage of police violence accumulated over the years, many Americans refuse to believe that it’s a problem; and as Nakamura points out, the same celebrity that cries at a VR film about homelessness can walk by unhoused people in Los Angeles without blinking an eye.

A more accurate description of VR empathy films is that they “let the user have it both ways—immersed in virtue as well as pleasurable pain.” Any exciting, emotional, narrative-driven simulation runs the risk of crossing over into pure entertainment, and in the case of films portraying police brutality or the abuses of incarceration, this prospect is especially ominous. The more they blur the line between pleasure and vicarious pain, the easier it becomes to believe that just watching these films is a form of political activism itself.

But the truth is, compassion needn’t and shouldn’t be sourced from spectacles that border on the fetishistic to inspire social change. Political mobilization is about the collective as much as it is personal: Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, for example, offered the slogan, “are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know?” This message of solidarity follows exactly the opposite logic of the VR super sensorium. “Fight for someone you don’t know” means fighting for them despite not feeling their pain, rather than deigning to care simply because you once imagined you felt it.

Video games and (sexual) porn, where VR technology has been most successful, deal generously in the currency of suffering, but not in exchange for empathy. The point is pleasure, the pleasure of immersing oneself in murder or abuse, of it feeling visceral and close without the consequences of reality.

These violent delights are not the same as the act of watching a VR film about refugees or racism. But they both show how easy it is to feel good about feeling bad once the world is drowned out by the comfort of a headset.

— Lizz Pankova


virtual past

In 1938, the scifi radio program The War of the Worlds was broadcast on national radio. Millions listening — so the legend goes — were convinced that an attack from Mars, narrated on air like a cold news report, was indeed razing New York City. Cue mass hysteria. Families rushed out into the street, fleeing imminent celestial doom.

This is a fiction. There were likely few listening to the broadcast that night at all, decades of research has shown; subsequent reports of mass panic and related deaths appear to be mostly fabricated. Yet the myth has stuck, and has wormed its way into history textbooks. In 1938, the incident reached the front page of the New York Times. A 2013 PBS documentary once again retold the story.

As cultural historian Jeffrey Sconce and others have suggested, the actual hysteria of The War of the Worlds derived, perhaps, from fear of the medium itself: Not of Mars, but of radio, its distortive intimacy, its ability to fool us.

In this sense, radio was a better precursor to VR than film or television. Those latter visuals are removed from their audience; a distance extends between spectator and screen. Radio, though, has no auditory separation, mirroring the internal dialogue of our thoughts. The style of the immersive radio drama, which narrated scenes with lavish sensory detail, is referred to often as “theater of the mind” — a phrase which, writes scholar Neil Verma, “suggests an irony to our common notion of radio as a 'mass' medium.” VR is similarly internal, similarly immediate, only of course, far more all-encompassing.

Even now that mass radio has faded, podcasts continue the tradition of old-school theater of the mind. The most popular documentary-style podcasts often arrive stripped of typical journalistic ethics: Take the lurid, devastating, and massively popular “S-Town,” which drags its audience down with its spiraling central character, turning him into a tragic spectacle. Or “Caliphate,” a New York Times podcast that went viral the summer of 2018, whose central character, it was revealed last week, had fabricated his gruesome stories of fighting with ISIS that carry the whole show. 

There is a fabricated sense of intimacy you feel with S-Town’s John McLemore; Caliphate’s Abu Huzayfah; Serial’s Adnan Syed, as you listen to their horrors on a morning commute. It feels like they are speaking directly to you. A few weeks ago, a friend admitted to me—sheepishly—that she listens to true crime podcasts to fall asleep; the hosts’ voices soothe her, she says, and mix into her dreams.

— Katya Schwenk


what we’re looking at

No Escape From Reality in Real Life Mag: Marcus Carter and Ben Egliston on virtual reality as a powerful tool for data collection.

Trevor Paglen Wants You To Stop Seeing Like a Human in Document Journal: Camille Sojit interviews Trevor Paglen, who makes mass surveillance and looping algorithms into art.

My Instagram in n+1: Dayna Tortorici on our eternal volley between mimesis and life.

Seeing Our Own Reflection in the Birth of the Self-Portrait in the New York Times: A close look at the human presence and alien exactitude of Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait.

What is Lifestyle? a project by Daisy Alioto: On the endless accumulation of images, memories, and commodities in the hopes of representing and understanding ourselves.


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