Digitality, Virtual Reality and the ‘Empathy Machine’

The man who works recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work: He recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity, of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself. Alexandre Kojève (1980, 27) The essay critiques an aspect of the so-called post-mobile wave of technological change that claims, through the vector of virtual reality (VR), to have created an ‘empathy machine’ that will form the basis of a new journalism. Through VR devices deployed by news organisations such as the New York Times, and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, users will be so powerfully immersed in, for example, a street demonstration, or a refugee camp, that the empathy they feel may constitute a new strengthening of the fourth estate’s civic role in informing and enlightening the public, to the extent that it can go beyond subjective empathy to develop a shared basis for political participation in civil society. The essay considers these claims from the overarching context of what is called digitality. It argues that human agents are analogue agents from an analogue world. Digitality, by contrast, is an essentially alienating sphere wherein digital media cannot replicate analogue communication processes without generating gaps, voids, and ‘missing information’. It further argues, extending insights from Guy Debord, that what VR does produce is a powerful ‘integrated spectacle’ that is a pale substitute for the form of interactive experience needed for the generation of empathy. Taken together, the essay concludes that empathy, a contestable term in its common understanding to begin with, cannot be generated from a digital source. Moreover, should VR become the next dominant post-mobile technological wave as the tech giants predict, then people, users and consumers of VR products in the fourth estate news context, will be further distanced from the analogue reality of the actual world.

Hassan, R. (2020) “Digitality, Virtual Reality and the ‘Empathy Machine’”. In: Digital Journalism Vol 8 Issue 2, Pp. 195—212, DOI 10.1080/21670811.2018.1517604

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