bicycles for the mind
By Josiah Nelson
Back in April 2015, a soft-eyed, disarmingly quiet man named Chris Milk spoke slowly to an attendant TedTalk audience through a popstar handsfree microphone about the ethical potential of virtual reality (VR). The CEO of the VR tech company “Within,” Milk suggested that VR could make users “more compassionate…more empathetic, and…more human.” His suggestion hinges upon VR’s seemingly unique ability to allow users to perceive from another’s perspective, which, so the argument goes, builds understanding and empathy in our divisive and confounding times. He then showcased a simulation that actually placed the user in a refugee’s shoes, a virtual slumming of sorts, which seemed to imperfectly illustrate his point. For a moment, his claim that VR could be “the ultimate empathy machine” seemed utopian, noble, and exciting.
But here’s the problem: VR is only able to give the user access to another’s physical existence—meaning that claims about VR instilling empathy in its user is contingent upon the thoroughly postmodern belief that embodying somebody’s physical reality is tantamount to accessing their actual experience of reality. This is problematic because empathy, by definition, demands a reckoning with and understanding of another’s experiences, dreams, traumas, fears, perceptions, and presuppositions—the incorporeal stuff beneath the surface.
So, while these digital tour guides claim to provide their users with a truly empathetic experience, that journey is actually better traveled by simply reading books. Because for all its bells and whistles, VR cannot actually give access to another’s incorporeal being—the being that must be known before empathy can proceed. Books, especially the best ones, exist for that very reason. The best literature reveals the perplexing, paradoxical, incorporeal parts of characters, enabling readers to reckon with another’s true essence, and ultimately allowing them to meaningfully empathize.
Only a nerd would suggest defining some terms—but a) that’s me and b) if you’re still reading an essay about literature being better than VR empathy-wise, I assume that’s you too—so let’s define some terms. Bryan A Garner, the usage and style dictionary guy who David Foster Wallace raved about, helpfully distinguishes empathy and sympathy as follows: Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another person’s position and to experience all the sensations connected with it. Sympathy is compassion for or commiseration with another. However, while Garner lays a helpful groundwork for understanding empathy, his definition skips over the process by which one is able to imagine oneself in another person’s position. Here, the authority on the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary is invaluable. Empathy is defined as: the power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation. Notice that the OED implies that projection and comprehension are entwined, implying that to empathize is to understand another person. And notice that VR can’t do that, primarily because it situates the self in the physical shoes of the other, rather than the incorporeal and psychological mind of the other. That VR is able to understand someone’s physicality, but not their experience of it.
Yet, many people in the tech world haven’t noticed. Since Milk’s TedTalk, studies have continually tried to connect VR to empathy. A recent Stanford research article titled, Building long-term empathy: A large-scale comparison of traditional and virtual reality perspective-taking mentions in its very first sentence that “VR has been increasingly referred to as ‘the ultimate empathy machine.’”
This particular study had participants engage in a VR simulation in which they assumed the identity of a person becoming homeless. Both participants were given a written “story” detailing essentially the same plot points. Both parties were also given the same questionnaire and petition in support of the homeless. Fernanda Herrera, an author of the study, concluded that “VR perspective-taking [participants] had more positive attitudes and signed the petition supporting helpful initiatives toward the homeless at significantly higher rates than the participants who just imagined what it would be like to become homeless or performed a less immersive perspective-taking task.” The natural conclusion of the study was that VR seemed to foster empathy even better than a written story.
(Which again: silly. The researchers were kind enough to attach their “story” in an appendix and it’s truly terrible. Everything reads like this: “You no longer have a roof over your head. You decide to stay with a friend for a couple of days but feel like a burden and end up leaving. Your only choice now is to live out of your car.” Not a story so much as a laundry list of someone’s life dryly detailed in the second person.)
Yet, as often happens in academia, researchers performed study after study doubling and tripling down on this flawed link between empathy and VR. “The Machine To Be Another” swapped the visual feed of two VR-wearing participants so that they saw from another person’s perspective. Another mixed-media program entitled, “A Breathtaking Journey” put the VR-wearer in the perspective of a refugee. This was, the programs suggested, empathy-training at its best. The programs appear revelatory. Groundbreaking. However, beneath their appearances, they’re classically and troublingly postmodern—and they’re actually solipsistic, or in simpler terms, narcissistic.
VR’s primary ethical problem is that it assumes empathy can be cultivated by merely physically embodying someone else’s identity. In the Stanford study, Herrera et al. suggested that “VR allows users to vividly and viscerally experience any situation as if it were happening to them from any perspective.” Similarly, the study that involved the “Machine To Be Another” emphasized the power of taking another’s perspective in embodied virtual reality (EVR): “Experiences of EVR allows users to literally step into the shoes of others and see the world from their perspective.” As if.
In essence, VR’s ethical justification is founded materially: it presumes that creating a “body ownership illusion” mimics actually becoming that person. These VR programs assume that physical access to another’s body is analogous to access to that person’s entire life experience. While perceiving the world as a homeless person for seven to fifteen minutes in a simulation might produce pity or sympathy for the homeless, it hardly gives proper access to the sort of psychological torment and anxiety that results from days and months and years of living on the street, not to mention a lifetime of possible trauma. It might give the subject a sense of what being homeless looks like, but it can hardly give access to what being homeless feels like.
And this is the problem with these supposedly empathy-fostering programs: they don’t and can’t account for the interiority of the other. Because these programs are predicated upon stepping into the other’s shoes, the subject isn’t encountering the other, but rather attempting to temporarily physically become them. This is problematic because the most salient element of the other’s experience—their mental, psychological, and emotional response to their physical situation and surroundings, which is cultivated over time—is just ignored. Instead, the VR-participants see these physical surroundings and circumstances, while retaining their own sense of interiority. This approach doesn’t foster empathy, which requires the subject to reckon with and understand for someone who is utterly other, but, paradoxically enough, its very enemy: solipsism—the belief that only your mind is sure to exist and that your life is the most vivid, colorful, and true.
I could bore you with an exhaustive, profoundly ‘90’s explanation of the philosophical context out of which VR has leaped—just ask my editors—but I won’t. I’ll give you the simple, spare account that’s incomplete, sure, but that partially explains why VR’s claim of fostering empathy is seductive and why, in the end, we all should just be reading a lot more books. It starts with the great seducer of pseudo-intellectual college-aged kids: Jacques Derrida. The thing with young Jacques is he wanted to destabilize. He claimed that philosophy elevated certain presuppositions above others. That light is better than darkness. That simple is better than complex. That speech is better than writing. That presence is better than absence. That depth is better than surface. He didn’t seek to reverse hierarchies so much as interrogate and confuse them.
Then Jean Baudrillard, a truly zany French philosopher who famously claimed the Gulf War never happened, came around and did Derrida one better: he looked at all the ads that lit up late-capitalism and suggested that while signs (or ads) once pointed to some meaning, they were so prevalent and vacuous that they now only referred to themselves. In our terms, surface and depth were no longer just destabilized, but the former actually swallowed the latter.
Do you see it? That a radical attempt to destabilize philosophy, which was helpful in diagnosing a confusing, depthless world, has led to the notion that depth is gone and only surface remains? That in some way, our sign-lit, ad-playing world has primed us to privilege appearances over depth?
VR sees it.
VR’s claim of fostering empathy in its subject is entirely contingent upon a postmodern understanding of empathy that merely involves assuming someone’s physical, surface-level appearance, rather than attempting to understand or sympathize with the thoughts, feelings, fears, perceptions, and dreams that comprise their essential, intangible personhood itself.
I think there is hope, though, at least for Luddite. Because although VR doesn’t seem to be able to foster real empathy that reckons with the other’s psyche, the simple act of reading books does just that. Whereas the immersion of VR strongly encourages the subject to emotionally engage in the simulation’s world by physically becoming them, fiction gives access to a character’s inner subjectivity without superficially forcing them to empathize. In her essay entitled, “Can Reading Make You Happier?” Ceridwen Dovey writes that reading “is a release from the moral obligation to feel something for invented characters—as you would for a real, live human being in pain or suffering.” She quotes the writer Suzanne Keen to suggest that this choice paradoxically allows the reader to “respond with greater empathy to an unreal situation and characters because of the protective fictionality.” A great book gives the reader access to a character’s essence—the stuff well below the surface: their thoughts, fears, experiences, dreams, and perceptions. The meaningful, non-accidental, non-material stuff. The seemingly contradictory, paradoxical sort of stuff that makes each of us human. The act of reading itself demands active mental participation from the reader so much so that the best literature nearly forces the reader to feel.
Perri Klass explored this question of participation in a recent article titled, “Reading to Your Toddler? Print Books Are Better Than Digital Ones.” She explained that when parents read to their toddlers from either a print book, an ebook on a tablet, or an enhanced ebook with sounds and animations, both the tablet and the ebook were distracting to the toddler. Which carries implications: whereas the book requires people to actively participate by turning the page, the electronic devices require the ubiquitous, single-finger scroll or a mere click. In other words, print books exist in the real world—you know, the one we are all actually living in.
This physical participation seems metaphorical for the larger issue: active mental participation and imaginative effort. The “enhanced” devices give the participants less space to imagine the bark of a dog or the chirpy squawk of a sea gull because it all just happens with a tap on the glass. VR seems like the next logical step of “enhanced” ebooks, in that VR gives full, almost obscene, visual access to a virtual scenario, demanding even less mental participation than “enhanced” reading, and removing any need for the user’s imagination. While real reading requires active and imaginative work, the extra visual access that VR offers doesn’t stimulate the imagination, but actually renders it redundant. In essence, VR coddles the mind into total passivity.
That reading demands effort and active engagement is critical, because empathy itself is an active emotion that requires work. My friends and I like reading this pretty niche and obscure writer who cut his teeth in London at the turn of the 20th century named—perhaps you’ve heard of him—W. Somerset Maugham, and he seems to agree. He wrote, “Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination.”
For Maugham, the artist perceives the world, interprets the world, and attempts to offer a representation of it back to the viewer. And there’s nothing idle about it. The feeling of knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination is commensurate with the artist’s, so long as the viewer’s willing to put in the imaginative effort to follow the artist’s journey. It’s intentional, emotional, imaginative work, and while it may not totally reflect the author’s feelings, it will most certainly give you physical emotion. Which is such a cool and profound element of society that we couldn’t help but come up with a word for it: empathy. Reading books teaches empathy by allowing the reader to have an encounter with a unique, messy consciousness that is utterly different from the reader’s. While VR assumes that the participant literally becomes another person, reading fiction simply gives access to another person’s experience and perception of life.
Consider the total and utter incomprehensibility of the experience of slavery in Colson Whitehead’s wonderful, tragic novel, The Underground Railroad. After describing the death of the protagonist’s grandmother and her aunts and uncles, the narrator says, “Liberty was reserved for other people, for the citizens of the City of Pennsylvania bustling a thousand miles to the north. Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible.”
Although readers have some vague sense of the pain such physical and psychological injustice and trauma would bring, they don’t and can’t understand the specific nature or depth of the pain. It’s unimaginable to us. Unlike VR, which assumes full access to another’s experience is possible via taking their perspective, reading teaches readers to feel for and to try to understand another’s totally foreign, painful experience. In so doing, they learn to identify with the sufferer and attempt to feel their pain, but also realize it is, to a certain degree, inaccessible, which itself evokes profound emotions.
Scientifically proving that reading improves empathy remains super-thorny. At the very least, though, reading’s supposition about the nature of empathy relies upon encountering another’s unique subjectivity and making a decision to emotionally engage. Moreover, fiction accounts for another’s complex interiority and trauma in a way that VR cannot. So while VR proponents can claim it makes us more compassionate, empathetic, and human, their claim is contingent upon postmodern and depthless understandings of those terms. The antidote to such narcissism is an actual encounter with another, to remind us that ours are not, in fact, the only vivid minds that exist. Until we find or develop a better method than reading to convincingly dramatize these experiences of the other, the book remains irreplaceable, and, at least for now, the ultimate empathy machine.