The Culture Crush
Society Is Everybody's Business

The Weekly


Ongoing examinations of our culture and the back and forth between the expressions of the mainstream and the movements and ideas that stand to counter them. But more than a trip through the cultural continuum, it is a weekly conversation between generations, industries, and schools of thought. We ask you to join us in posing questions about our society— and about ourselves.


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Sometimes when we think about technology and all of its promises of utopian futures it's hard to separate out what’s programmatic and what’s just a reflection of ourselves. Whether you love all of the easiness of having whole worlds exist behind the looking glass, or feel the queasiness that comes with the societal consequences of that very same all-connecting-tech, one thing’s for sure, everyone says they are looking for a little bit of empathy. And  over and over again, most technologists and more than a few Stanford professors claim that with the development of virtual reality we are potentially building what could be the ultimate postmodern empathy machines. But as with many proclamations coming from down in that silicon valley, the infamous bicycle for our minds we are waiting for has really existed in our primitive, pre-internet, analog, tactile world all along.

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In his new piece, Josiah Nelson argues that though virtual reality’s seemingly unique ability to allow users to perceive the world from another’s perspective (which, so the argument goes, builds understanding and empathy in our divisive and confounding times) there remains one big problem with that thesis no matter how many studies with the same built-in biases try to convince us it's true. Why? Because “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 that 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 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 just 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, and unknowable parts of characters, enabling readers to reckon with another’s true essence, and ultimately allowing them to meaningfully empathize.” In other words, we not only get a peek inside the worlds of the characters, but also inside the minds of the characters themselves. Read Bicycles For The Mind Here.

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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. And narcissistic sympathy is the virtual ghost built into every machine. “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 simply stepping into the other’s shoes, the subject isn’t encountering the other, but rather, attempting to temporarily physically become them—their mental, psychological, and emotional response to their physical situation and surroundings, which is cultivated over time—is just ignored.

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We once broke down digital experiences into two categories, lean forward or lean back, meaning either you were physically engaged, like playing Fortnite, or you just sat back and let it happen, like watching Netflix. But virtual reality strap-ons are like lean back experiences that let you pretend to have made the effort. And while books, those collections of compressed dead trees with ink all over them, might appear to be the ultimate lean back experience, they require your mind to do a hell of a lot of work. “That reading demands effort and active engagement is critical, because empathy itself is an active emotion that requires work. Or as W. Somerset Maugham put it when describing the active role required of those who truly experience art, “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, and those of us who question the validity of the empathetic technology argument, there’s nothing idle about it.


“Great books can account 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.” So while technologists are still dreaming of those proverbial bicycles for their minds, might we remind them that having someone else pedal for you while they collect your data sort of misses the point.

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Pulling W. Somerset Maugham’s great quote from The Moon and Sixpence was no accident. Maugham had a particular way of calling out society with his clever prose through the use of a narrator, a tactic that worked so well it became a hallmark of his work, one that many critics wrote off as monotonous. However, by never writing in the first person, Maugham could inflict his own proselytizing on the reader, by simply leaving it to them to figure out. But, and especially in The Moon and Sixpence, the narrator is for all intents and purposes Maugham himself. He was able to wink at readers, and more so at his bourgeois haters, with what he really thought about them and their lives, which meant he never hesitated to shine a light on the hypocrisy of the bourgeois society that he lived in. 

He had a way of profoundly verbalizing the most human of emotions and actions. For example, in the Moon and Sixpence, the main character leaves his wife, and the “narrator” goes on to describe the very human desire of what we would now call rubbernecking, the not-being-able-to-look-away effect. The narrator tells the reader, “I was torn between the fear of hurting a nice woman’s feelings and the fear of being in the way. I felt she must be suffering, and I did not want to see a pain which I could not help; but in my heart was a desire, that I felt a little ashamed of, to see how she was taking it.”

This sort of expertly described empathy led to some of the great monologues of the 20th century. In his lifetime, Maugham wrote 20 novels, including The Razor's Edge and Of Human Bondage, along side 25 plays, 13 different nonfiction collections, and over 20 short stories. By the '30s, he was the highest-paid author in the world. But he never lost himself in the perceived fame. In fact, when Maugham was told he was the most popular author in the English speaking world, he slyly replied “[I’m] in the very first row of the second-raters.”

W. Somerset Maugham is said to have lacked imagination, which is why he traveled and wrote about the people he knew—he needed to experience things in order to write about them. If this sentiment is assumed to be a fatal flaw for most writers, he certainly proved that wrong. Because maybe the reason Maugham was curiously spot on about people, society, beauty, flaws, and empathy, was simply because he actually lived it and was honest about it. He lived in this world and wrote about it, allowing we the readers to repeat his adventures and listen to the melodies he sang to us. The ultimate postmodern empathy machine.

debra scherer