Empathize With This Post
In my Keyword Post 2, I raised questions about whether entertainment and social media are the best uses and ends of the remediated self and agency. Does Bolter and Grusin’s point of view, that transparency through technologies such as virtual reality (VR) lead to heightened empathy, hold true in light of how these technologies are actually used? Do these bring the self to itself in self-actualization or further away as others are remediated into objects, both of pleasure and displeasure?
The authors write that “virtual reality surpasses film and television in convincing the user of the flexibility and the contingency of point of view” (246); they go on to explicate how this visual positioning both denies and upholds the Cartesian ego. It’s this denial that I find problematic. One way to express this problem is through the way that visual and social media transparency diverges from the experience of immediacy through traditional written texts. Can this type of remediation lead to true empathy, or are we left with the desire for self-preservation and gratification that merely masquerades as empathy?
First, consider that we must still make a distinction between the virtual and real, even though the two draw ever nearer. I would argue that this fact stays with users, coloring the ways in which people experience empathy in these visual or online encounters. As immediacy leads ever back into hypermediacy, the subject is reconfirmed as that which stands apart, no matter how compelling the transparency.
With traditional textual media, however, the subject is encouraged into Cartesian withdrawal from sense perception, and in this standing apart, becomes better able to find a platform from which to stand with others. With meditative study, the subject becomes whole and able to interact in a way that proceeds from rational thought, not desire or fleeting joy. Reading a book is solitary, and although printed words act as medium, the true experience and visualization is in the mind. VR is outside the mind and rooted in sensory feelings and perceptions; while this does change notions of how body and mind interact to produce “self,” it could too easily lead to a conception that everyone around us are externalizations and their actions don’t necessarily affect the subject. The subject might then be led into remediating the real into objects of media instead of remediating an inner experience into a manner of treating objects (including other subjects) in the world.
Further, the self becomes reactive to its own impulses, which often means the maximization of pleasure and the denial of pain. Yes, we could find a type of knowing through pretending to be a young gorilla in the virtual world, but to get people to perform this action, some enjoyment must be available. Is empathy based solely on positive emotions? What about becoming empathetic to people who live in extreme poverty and hunger—what VR program or remediation of film or television is going to be striking enough, available, and desirable? And is empathy a quality so effortlessly built that a run through a computer program or quick read of a Twitter post enough to form it? One could easily argue that this complex emotion requires greater knowledge and deeper processing.
In the end, it’s this surface-level nature of interactions that truly reinforces the negatives. Books are slow and take time to read; social media and computer games ask for faster consideration. Media encourage faster remediation as the new and different vie for increasingly scattered attention. In this type of hypermediated environment, subjects are not required to make thoughtful decisions. Then, as personalized technology responds to a user’s daily decisions, the original impulses are reinforced, leading to a newly remediated self, one that can refresh nearly daily.
And the effect on empathy? If devices and desires refresh and personalize constantly, why wouldn’t subjects begin to acclimate to this feeling and expect the same of people? The ego is centralized, its desires catered to at all times, so “self” becomes an agglomeration of quick choices and feedback from devices and networks. Bolter and Grusin note that VR can deny identity and separateness: “The key is to experience the world as others do, not to retire from the distractions of the world to discover oneself as a thinking agent” (251). In theory, this is perhaps possible, but in practice, I don’t think this is what happens. I think the real becomes lost more often than not as we remediate people into devices, and when this happens, true empathy (as opposed to the ability to merely gain a quick sense of others possible feelings) is lost.
Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2000.