Virtual empathy and armchair activism

Put the goggles on and you are in prison, caged in a cold white concrete 6 x 9 cell. The only signs of life are the dirty scuff marks ascending the walls and the steely toilet that drips ‘because it sweats and it hits the floor; chswip, tcshwip, tschip’. Francesca Panetta and Lindsay Poulton’s 6×9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement (2016), along with other VR work, promises an immersive experience, attempting to conjure a first-person experience of the traumatising conditions of solitary confinement. It is presumed that the viewer’s unsettling experience of the prisoner’s perspective will arouse empathy, leading the viewer to take meaningful action against the apparatuses of inequality that underscore the prisoner’s suffering and subjugation.

The empathy-generating potential of VR has attracted much attention, centred on the notion that VR’s immersive ‘experiential-storytelling’ capacity uniquely positions it to expand our empathy. With VR goggles, filmmakers place viewers alongside characters or inside avatars, allowing them to virtually experience, for example, detention, a bomb blast in Syriaa protest in New York. VR has the ability to immerse viewers in ways that more conventional documentary and narrative films cannot – but immersion is not equivalent to empathy.

Defined simply, empathy is receptiveness to the inner state of other beings. It is one’s awareness of, sensitivity to and ability to imagine the feelings of those different to one’s self in identity, practice or situation. Empathy denotes an orientation of care or concern towards others.

Immersion, in contrast, signals a viewer’s complete (virtual) absorption in the state of being of another person. Rather than creating an encounter with the other, immersion negates the difference of experience that exists between the viewer and the subject whose experience and feelings VR seeks to replicate. The virtual experience falsely inscribes experiences like solitary confinement on the viewer, marking a transition from the self who understands how the other feels to the self who knows how the other feels.

Empathy requires imaginatively placing oneself ‘in the shoes of another’, while acknowledging that ‘this is not one’s own experience’. Through immersion, VR attempts to collapse the distinction between self and other by allowing the viewer to imagine they have experienced the feelings of the other person, foreclosing the subjectivity of the very person whose experience it attempts to stage; a complex subjective experience is reduced to the singular virtual experience of the privileged viewer.

Stories of pain and suffering, particularly those of peoples excluded from circuits of power and communication, should be heard. Such stories contribute to a multiplicity of voices and the plurality of human experience, expanding the boundaries of our empathy. The stories of people formerly imprisoned in solitary confinement have the potential to disrupt assumptions about those imprisoned. Central to social justice projects and building solidarity are empathetic relations with peoples whose experiences we can only approximate by listening to their stories.

Understood through this lens, Panetta and Poulton’s efforts with 6×9 are praiseworthy. Although it focuses on the viewer’s experience, 6×9 is also about creating a new space where voices silenced by prison walls can be heard. By weaving VR immersion and testimonial narration typical of conventional documentaries, 6×9 counter-focalises the viewer’s ‘first-hand experience’ of solitary confinement. This manoeuvre keeps the agency of the subjects of 6×9 somewhat intact.

Promoters of 6×9 caution viewers: ‘This is hopefully the closest you’ll ever come to experiencing solitary confinement for yourself. Can you handle it?’ Like viewers at the mythic first screening of the Lumiére Brothers Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895), who allegedly fled as the train came chugging towards them, threatening to tear through the frame, viewers of 6×9 might find themselves taking flight from its ‘realness’. The promotional messaging toys with the notion that VR has the potential to eclipse the ontological difference between the viewer and the subject of documentary – the empathiser and the empathised with. It positions the viewer as the you who has not experienced solitary confinement, but desires to feel the prisoner’s pain and suffering. The contradiction is that the viewer’s appropriation of the prisoner’s experience maintains difference: the other’s pain and suffering is desired only insofar as the viewer does not experience it IRL. Empathy, as produced by VR, is conflated with immersion and virtual experience, sustaining the very difference that it hopes to overcome.

Prominent VR filmmaker Chris Milk, speaking of his collaborative work with Spike Jonze VICE News VR: Millions March (2015), which situates the viewer among a crowd of protesters marching against police brutality and racism in New York, claims that ‘the viewer feels transported to that place. There’s no translation. They’re witnessing it first-hand themselves’. ­He’s comparing VR to other mediums to suggest not only that VR creates new levels of affective intensity, but transcends being a medium at all, because the viewer witnesses the action first-hand.

Unlike 6×9, the purpose of Millions March is unclear. Where 6×9 attempts to stage the unsettling experience of solitary confinement in hopes of empowering viewers to ameliorate it, Millions March provides the armchair warrior with the ultimate experience of direct-action activism. Both 6×9 and Millions March take the first-person experience of another’s feelings as the prerequisite for empathy and attempt to give the viewer the experiences of other people. This undermines the intersubjective aspects of empathy, those that allow us to acknowledge the difference of experience that exists between complex individuals.

Supposedly, by immersing the viewer in the perspective of an avatar, VR enables the viewer to feel another person’s pain, suffering, joy. The other person’s lived experience and feelings are appropriated as the viewer’s own. But this is a negation of the difference of experience – a necessary condition of empathy. VR filmmakers’ preoccupation with viewers’ immersion undermines claims about its empathy-generating potential.

Like the concrete walls of the solitary confinement cell, VR goggles are a reminder of the asymmetric power relations that deprive one person of bare-minimum conditions for a fulfilling life, while opening new realms of experience to another. In real reality, the empathy that remains central to social justice, to nurturing ethical relations across boundaries, is formed through intersubjective encounters, through stories shared with others, who one cares for without the possibility of ever gaining first-person experience of their pain and suffering.


Image: Still from 6×9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement.

Tristen Harwood

Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer and critic, a descendent of Numbulwar.

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