by Caitlin Kossmann
Our relationship with technology is always fraught. Each new social media platform gives us more ways to connect with people we know--and people we don’t--from all over the world. But each new development also provokes fear of increasing isolation and alienation. There have been many articles voicing concerns that technology makes us less social and less aware of one another's humanity (e.g. here or here). But technology can be a powerful empathy-building tool, as well, giving us access to other people’s experiences in new and more immersive ways. Here are three different examples of how technologies can be used to promote empathy and widen our horizons.
1. Virtual Reality: Bodyswapping to reduce racial bias
From the start, one of the major selling points of VR has been its ability to provide a convincing experience of being someone other than yourself—its ability to provoke empathy, in other words. Take a simple bodyswapping example. Several labs have been experimenting with ways to make participants feel ownership of a different body. This can be as simple as touching a hidden part of the participant's body (hand or face) while simultaneously touching a virtual or unrelated hand or face. Or it can be inhabiting a body of another race or even another gender through VR. It might not seem like a big deal. Simply changing the color of your skin in an only semi-realistic avatar, even if that avatar’s face is touched at the same time as yours, shouldn’t be that convincing, right? Yet Implicit Association Tests (IATs) have shown slightly decreased negative bias toward pictures of black faces when white subjects experienced “being” black with a VR headset. Controlling an avatar with a different skin tone by moving your own body may look more puppeteering than real bodyswapping. But it’s a powerfully simple model. Could we decrease racial bias across whole populations through just a quick VR demonstration?
2. Exoskeleton: Instant aging
An even more immersive experience of inhabiting another body has been developed by Applied Minds, LLC for Genworth Financial, Inc. The R70i Exoskeleton Aging Suit gives you the works. The 40-lb suit includes attachments to restrict joint movement, headphones that can simulate tinnitus (ringing in your ears) and aphasia (a speech impediment often provoked by stroke), and VR-simulated cataracts or vertigo. Restricting joint movement isn’t the same as the internal pain of arthritis. But the makers of the Aging Suit have tapped into a particularly effective combination, involving both brain and body in several ways. The exoskeleton makes you really feel the unresponsiveness of creaky joints or a damaged leg, giving you a full sensory experience of living in a different body. It seems to work: several participants immediately made promises to be kinder and more understanding of elderly people after the experience.
3. The Homeless GoPro Project
Here’s a project that argues both sides of the technology and empathy question. The Homeless GoPro Project in San Francisco aims to combat the decreased empathy that they argue is caused by technology with... more technology. Homeless participants wear a GoPro two hours a day and the footage is uploaded onto the web. The aim is to share the daily experience of being homeless in San Francisco with a wider population. The project leaders refer to this project as recording “extreme living”, a clear reference to the extreme sports the camera is more often used for. It is likely also an attempt to make the project sound more appealing. However, such a formulation highlights a potential downside: charges of voyeurism or a kind of disaster tourism. Founder Kevin Adler assures us he was aware of this potential from the start, and took steps to insure this project was pursued with all due respect. Still, awareness of a potential problem isn’t the same as solving it. There haven’t been any follow-ups to see if viewers found this experience to deepen their empathy, as it was intended to do, but Adler reports plenty of positive feedback, and an ever-growing community of people who want to help move the project forward and give the homeless a voice.
So, can technology build empathy?
Film has long been an effective medium for showing us a world and getting us to connect to others’ experiences. But it seems that affective empathy--really feeling what another person feels--is more easily accessed if we are given other clues to make it seem as if these problems or aspects are our own. VR has been billed as “the ultimate empathy machine” because of these immersive capabilities. However, how much any of these experiences will affect your actions, particularly in the longer term, is not clear. They certainly confuse our perception. But each of these examples is a mediated experience, and uses technologies still strongly associated with games and entertainment. The moment it stops, you’re back to being yourself.
We’re still left with the question: does it work? In the moment, weighed down by the exoskeleton and reeling from simulated aphasia, you can’t help feeling empathetic for others who suffer this way every day. As that memory fades, will you still be able to hold on to that increased empathy? Without significant follow-ups to see if these modifications of thought and behavior stick, it seems too early to put too much faith in a technological fix for problems of social justice. But can technology change your behavior, individually? That one’s easy—try for yourself and see.
SMASH attendees will have an opportunity to try VR for themselves on Tuesday, September 20 at 6:00PM at an immersive technology exhibition and reception. More information can be found on our website at www.sciencemediasummit.org. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @scienceSMASH, and join the conversation using the hashtag #sciencemedia.
Caitlin Kossmann is a production assistant for SMASH.
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.