Assessing virtual reality’s value as an ‘empathy machine’

In her latest book, Yale anthropologist Lisa Messeri examines the limits of using virtual reality to enhance empathy and address social problems.
Lisa Messeri and her book "In the land of the unreal"

Lisa Messeri

Virtual reality can transport people, through headsets and joysticks, into immersive, imaginary worlds where they can explore alien planets, battle zombies, or even play minigolf.

But Yale anthropologist Lisa Messeri isn’t so much interested in the emerging technology’s ability to create fantastical worlds for gamers as she is in its supposed promise to help us better understand, and thereby improve, our own.

In her latest book, “In the Land of the Unreal: Virtual and Other Realities in Los Angeles” (Duke University Press), Messeri examines a community of Los Angeles-based storytellers, artists, and tech innovators focused on using virtual reality (VR) to remedy societal ills by generating empathy toward marginalized communities. However, technology alone can’t solve complex social problems, Messeri explains, even as such fantasies nonetheless persist.

Messeri, an associate professor of anthropology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, recently spoke to Yale News about fractured realities, VR as an “empathy machine,” and whether donning a headset can really help anyone know what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes. The interview has been edited and condensed. 

In the book, you discuss fractured realities and the unreal. What do those terms mean? 

When I began this project, I got a little nervous because it seemed as though, given the topic of virtual reality, I’d have to say something about the nature of reality, which seemed like a daunting task given millennia of humans pondering this question. I started playing with the term “unreal,” as opposed to the real. The point was to be very clear that the unreal is not reality’s opposite. Rather, what the unreal signals is a moment when reality’s multiplicity demands attention. The reality I experience is different from the reality you experience, which is different from the reality of someone in a war-torn country.

But often people, especially those occupying positions of privilege, embrace the idea that we’re all inhabiting a common reality, a common world. The unreal marks moments when that common reality no longer seems viable or present, when that idea of a common reality is fracturing. In a way, the book is about what it means to accept that fractured realities structure our social world and how VR simultaneously accepts the existence of these fractured realities, but then sets itself up as a tool for knitting them into a common reality by functioning as what its promoters call an “empathy machine.”

What does it mean to use VR as an ‘empathy machine?’

I was observing innovators and storytellers who were interested in using VR to tell impactful stories about the world, often from the perspective of people with identities or from communities that have been historically marginalized, with the goal of inducing a strong, empathetic reaction.

For example, in the introduction I describe experiencing “Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible),” a VR project written and directed by Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu that places the viewer among a group of migrants crossing the Mexican border into the United States. That project, which was the first VR experience selected for screening at the Cannes Film Festival, exemplifies the aspirations of many of the people who were the subject of my ethnographic work, who were attempting to use VR to solve — or at least bring attention to — societal problems. 

You focus specifically on the VR community in Los Angeles in 2018. Why that time and place?

People in LA were using VR as a documentary, non-fictional storytelling device that could bridge differences and (it was imagined) allow people of privilege to enter the worlds of those with less privilege, which would in turn cultivate empathy, create a better world, etc. As a scholar trained to think critically about science and technology, particularly when social goods are being promised, I was immediately apprehensive and curious about this idea. Los Angeles was where a lot of this kind of work was happening.

My research was also a conversation about how women could lead this re-emerging field of virtual reality. And again, a lot of the women who were being cited as leaders in the field were based in Los Angeles.

But this was also a time when Trumpism was finding its stride and the idea of alternative facts had entered the national discourse. It became very important to me to write about virtual reality at a moment when the alternative realities of Trumpism were part and parcel of American daily life. Los Angeles – and particularly Hollywood – helped make Trump a household name. Being in a place so capable of manufacturing stories and worlds for both benign entertainment and with unintended political consequences struck me as an important location for understanding VR.

You embedded with a start-up called Embodied Labs. How did it approach using VR as an empathy machine?

I worked with a whole bunch of companies and communities, including at the University of Southern California, the Technicolor Experience Center, and with several start-ups and other endeavors. Carrie Shaw invited me into her company, Embodied Labs, which was using virtual reality as a tool for helping caregivers better understand the experiences that their elderly clients were enduring, such as problems that arise with our minds and bodies as we age.

I was interested in Embodied Labs because I had various critiques of VR as an empathy machine. For one, there are its evident racial problematics: in embodying another’s life world, you inevitably erase the agency of the often minoritized perspective that the well-meaning viewer is trying to engage and empathize with. I was curious whether I could find a story about a project that was working within the ethos of the empathy machine, but doing so in a way that I could endorse and that scholars could learn something from.

What distinguished the company’s work from other VR applications focused on generating empathy for others?

In the end, what I felt distinguished Embodied Labs from other start-ups in this space is that it was using VR as a tool to assist or augment the work of people working as caregivers, which has the potential to benefit both parties in an existing social relationship. These were caregivers who are quite familiar with the experiences of their elderly clients. And that’s very different than instances when VR is being used to replace the need to engage with other humans.

What’s your verdict on VR as an empathy machine? Will it make the world a better place?

It’s not inconceivable that VR could be a tool that further helps inform us about things happening in the world. But the idea that it can somehow, on its own, fix societal problems represents a mindset that too often accompanies emerging technologies. In the book, I note that VR is not only an emerging technology, but also a cinematic technology used to tell stories. This distinction allows us to consider the potential for VR as a cinematic technology to be used for telling engaging and impactful stories, but VR in and of itself is not going to fix the world.

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