Sad Machines: Virtual reality and the myth of empathy

Michael Davin

cw// disembodiment, colonialism

Before living this life, have a pen or sharpie nearby, something that can write on skin.

The invitation to live someone else’s life. What could be a more profound and intimate gesture? To sit down and cast your own self aside. To inhabit the body of another.

Did we forget, at some point, that we have been playing pretend for eternities? From the imagination, via theatre stages, to our constructed online identities, we spend so much time and thought slipping our everyday representations and inhabiting different existences. It is something that, for all its metaphysical weirdness, is shockingly normal and mundane.

Sometimes this is for our own pleasure and fulfilment – projecting ourselves into elaborate fantasies. Sometimes, though, art aims to teach us something. Our media is constantly flooded with content which tries to extend the viewer’s understanding beyond themselves; hopefully, to places that would never otherwise be reached.

The objective is empathy. We have collectively decided that empathy is a useful objective for media. There is a pervasive idea in our political discourse that regressive policies come about due to a lack of empathy. Any technologies at our disposal which can encourage people to be more empathetic are held up as a social good which should inevitably enter the mainstream of public consciousness.

Virtual reality isn’t there yet. It’s too expensive, it requires too much computing power, it’s a bit clunky, the kit has been tested so little on anyone who isn’t a dude that anyone under 5’6″ gets grotesquely motion sick whenever they try to use it. It is still one of the tools shaping the modern technology industry, however, aiming to become the primary platform through which everyone interacts with their digitised existence.

The Machine To Be Another is an early example of one of those platforms of interaction. It is a set of protocols which allow two people, each with a VR headset on, to share their embodiments. Its most notorious and fully realised iteration is Gender Swap – two participants of different genders synchronise their movements to share the sensation of exploring a body that isn’t theirs.

It’s a project founded in hope. The collective behind it, BeAnotherLab, has a suitably techno-utopian slant to its mission statement – they see their instrument as a tool for generating empathy, which can therefore make the world a better place. In that context, the snappy tagline for the project bears considering: “If I were you, would I better understand myself?”.

VR has two basic premises: firstly, that through imitation, we can generate empathy; secondly, that VR gives a greater fidelity of imitation. Each of these principles, at various moments, fractures or entirely breaks down. Every seam and stitch in the photograph, every jagged tripod leg sticking into view – each is a rift where the image peels itself apart and reveals its essential plasticity. No leap of imagination can repair a world in which the basic logic and physics has started to come undone.

At the same time, the notion that seeing a faithful reproduction of reality will lead to a viewer developing empathy is flawed as well – the idea was always intended to describe a process of labour. Given that, it becomes obvious why Bertold Brecht described the facsimile engendered by cinema as “shallow, passive, weak-willed spectatorship”. Empathy is obsessed with superficial similarity and is devoid of physical embodiment. The idea that ever greater visual accuracy somehow offsets this doubles down on a faulty initial premise. Empathy is due for a value crash. No labour goes into creating it.

And yet our most potent technologies are tasked with instilling it into us. VR allows for the most comprehensive simulation of reality, without demanding the viewer experience any of the emotional or physical consequences of it. The ‘strategic location’, as coined by Edward Said, of the viewer in a VR experience that of the creator’s camera. By technical necessity, that means the viewer is a disembodied presence, outside of the realm of presence and consequence – the embodiment of another simply cannot be sustained given how fragile the illusion is. It fully recreates the implicit social arrangement between the viewer and the spectacle. It is the ultimate voyeurism: a colonisation of emotions of others.

So if you have an Empathy Machine, for who’s sake are you operating it? For us, the performers? And to quote Robert Yang, what if we don’t want your fucking empathy?

Yang, a game developer and academic at NYU, creates super duper gay virtual vignettes that attract as much buzz as straight consternation due to their unashamed centring of queer, sexualised experiences. He diagnoses VR as a real techno-capitalist utopian project, an ever-receding horizon that promises, when it finally dawns, a perfect fix to all of society’s ills.

The practical work that Yang thinks creators can do now is to seize small pieces of that project back. Achieving a queer utopia is just as powerful a dream as anything a techbro can come up with – more than the everyday, marginal gains of legislation and medical rights, a queer utopia is a wholesale rejection of being othered, of having others write our stories, of being the avatars in the Empathy Machine.

We already have so many extraordinary examples of media by queers, for queers. The quotes at either end of this piece are from Porpentine’s text adventure game With Those We Love Alive, which pours itself through the cracks of a weird, body-horror, fantasy world, weaving a story of trans life and love into its fabric, and onto the skin of the player.

When we want to connect to bodies of runes and medicines, what better way is there than to inscribe those marks on ourselves?

When we have the capacity to create worlds, why bother making them for the people who already own this one?

Estroglyphs. Spiroglyphs. Identical to the ones on your body.


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