Virtual Reality and Empathy Machines

As long as we are on the topic of the Global Brain, virtual reality and “the Dream Society”….

Ben Tarnoff published a piece today in The Guardian that examines the marketing strategy for virtual reality technologies, branding them as “empathy machines” (“Empathy — the latest gadget Silicon Valley wants to sell you“, but which, oddly enough, is contradicted on the same day which suggests quite the opposite: “Why psychopaths could be a force for the greater good“, suggesting that the Global Brain is quite schizophrenic).

What’s interesting, though, is that virtual reality is being sold as a techno-fix for “the empathy deficit”, and so it must freely acknowledge that there is, in fact, an empathy deficit needing a fix. It’s safe to say that no society, in fact, can long survive an empathy deficit, since empathy is the glue that holds a society together in a sense of “we-ness”.

Now, the empathy deficit, which is real and is the subject of Gary Olson’s book Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain, is the flip-side of Christoper Lasch’s “culture of narcissism“. Empathy is what we call “fellow-feeling”, and is precisely what is lacking in the narcissist and the “identitarian”.

In effect, the “empathy machine” is being offered as a cure — a techno-fix — for the culture of narcissism and the attendant problem of “identity politics”. It’s rather revealing of the “myth of the machine”.

Instead of examining the roots of the culture of narcissism in deficient social philosophies, or faulty root assumptions, beliefs, or social mythologies, the techno-fix offers a convenient way of evading the question altogether. The techno-fix then acts as a form of concealment. We do not have to examine ourselves, our beliefs, our root assumptions, our social mythologies (political, economic, religious, etc) for their appropriateness. Those root assumptions remain opaque and intact.

This is an example of what Algis Mikunas calls “technocratic shamanism” or “neuromancy” (after William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer). It’s quite consistent with what I would expect from what I earlier examined as “marketing 3.0” or “spiritual branding” or “holistic branding”. The “age of spiritual machines” indeed.

We’ll learn empathy from machines. What we won’t learn is why we might need to do so in the first place, because that would expose the social mythologies that must remain concealed or opaque to the question. Real self-examination is to be avoided.

Do we really expect machines to teach us about life? About spirituality? Isn’t that a bit like the troubled married couple consulting a counsellor who has never been married (but has a “technique”)?

I have a simple formula for what to expect from this: Global Brain + Virtual Reality = The Dream Society. The Dream Society: How the Coming Shift from Information to Imagination Will Transform Your Business is Rolf Jensen’s techno-utopian vision of a Brave New World-like post-rational, post-truth “final form of society”. Neuromancers are even now honing and sharpening their skills through “holistic branding” and “marketing 3.0” to serve as the Dream Society’s “agents” (like in The Matrix), if not architects, serving in that ideal capacity for which political scientist  Samuel Huntington so ardently wished,

“The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”

Endarkenment versus Enlightenment, in other words. Or, in the words of Gil Baillie (describing his “humanity at the crossroads” theme in Violence Unveiled) concealment or revelation; or, in Jean Gebser’s terms, opacity or transparency.

And in those terms, humanity is indeed at a crossroads and crucial juncture.






19 responses to “Virtual Reality and Empathy Machines”

  1. Wayne Ferguson says :

    In a recent Sam Harris podcast (which one escapes me at the moment), the guest mentioned studies using forum or chat-room bots that could recognize extremely harsh, hateful speech and would send the person a message that would remind them that the person they were responding to were a human being and had feelings, too. As I recall, the conclusion was that a simple reminder of this kind tended to discourage hatful posts by the people who received them (by eliciting empathy, I assume). Would that be an example of an “empathy machine”?

    Here’s a related article that a google search turned up, but it doesn’t seem to touch on the empathy factor.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Sounds like a straight denial of service attack that would be organised by the bot army itself. So, they are, in a sense, trying to build in an “immune system” into the global brain. These bot armies are envisioned like the body’s leukocytes, attacking infections and foreign invaders.

      • Wayne Ferguson says :

        In the article that I linked to, yes, but in the Sam Harris podcast, the guest seemed to be saying that the forum “immune system”, so to speak, would be alert for hateful messages and send messages in response (as if from a fellow human being) to remind hateful people that they are communicating with other human beings. Supposedly, this would be enough to reduce or eliminate the number of hateful message sent in that forum by those persons.

        • Wayne Ferguson says :

          Here’s the piece:

          “Facing the Crowd” (see 49:45 – 53:00 minutes)

          “In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Nicholas Christakis about mob behavior, moral panics, and current threats to free speech.”

          He is drawing an analogy between the de-individuation that takes place in mob-behavior with that which takes place in anonymous online behavior. He’s saying that the bad behavior of both can be circumvented or at least ameliorated if they are brought back to their individual identity.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    “Quantum wierdness” is a loverly phrase. Superposition, wave-particle duality, quantum entanglement, but most especially the fact that light acts “as if” it were conscious, “deciding”, “choosing”. And why not?

    I was reading the results of a recent experiment in quantum wave particle duality, and you do get the impression, reading it, that the experimenters even think of light as acting as if it were aware, making decisions or choices about whether to be a particle or a wave, or both, or neither. And some physicists have already made the controversial “leap” to conclude that the universe IS conscious.

    I mean, why not? If Newton could presuppose Absolute Space and Absolute Time, without evidence, in order to make his deterministic calculations work, why can’t a quantum physicist presuppose the universe as aware in order to make his more probablistic caluclations work? In fact, isn’t that what is behind the phrase “shut up and calculate!” It’s just that, for some physicists anyway, it’s still a “bridge too far”.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Ho! The usual suspects.

        While I welcome a manifesto for a post-materialist science, this particular one goes well beyond what is minimally necessary to state in order to justify it. That’s unfortunate, because even I was becoming uneasy reading it, because it’s exactly what needs to be verified and validated that is seemingly assumed to be the case in the manifesto.

        I’m a bit concerned that in their enthusiasm for post-materialist science, these scientists might be massaging the meaning of “spiritual” in the same way the mechanists and materialists massaged the word “nature”. One shouldn’t connect psychic phenomena or psi phenomena with the meaning of “spiritual”, because that binds the spiritual to the phenomenal. The psychical and the spiritual are actually different matters.

        In fact, I would say that its the meaning of the “spiritual” that has to be discovered by a post-materialist science, and not as something assumed in advance.

      • Scott Preston says :

        The authors of the manifesto are all from the Life Sciences. It seems kind of strange that you have to issue a manifesto to uphold the indepedence of the Life Sciences from the Physical Sciences, and recast Life Science as “post-materialist”. Real life science should never have lapsed into the Newtonian world conception in the first place!

        In effect, what the Life Sciences are doing is asking the Physical Sciences to become Life Sciences, rather than vice versa. The real problem is that the Life Sciences all try to emulate the Physical Sciences. What the manifesto purports to say, though, is that QM is beginning to resemble a Life Science and should declare itself post-materialist also.

        Oddly enough, there is some precedent for that. In Greek, Physis wasn’t solely material. It was the realm of life and growth. Like Latin Natura was the living world — the realm of birth (hence “native”, “nativity” etc).

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        what the Life Sciences are doing is asking the Physical Sciences to become Life Sciences, rather than vice versa.

        Well, they did say…

        Post-materialist science does not reject the empirical observations and great value of scientific achievements realized up until now…. Post-materialism is inclusive of matter, which is seen as a basic constituent of the universe.

        Or (reading between the lines), ‘It’s not that we want to get rid of Physics. We just want to knock Physics back into its proper place in the scientific pantheon. That’s all. Don’t mess around in our sandbox and we won’t mess around in yours.’

        Real life science should never have lapsed into the Newtonian world conception in the first place!

        Rosenstock-Huessy, no doubt, would definitely concur, given his repeated warnings to the social and political sciences against continuing to go in that direction. (Still not sure why these aren’t called Arts, unless their progenators felt they needed that “scientific veneer” to remain “relevant” during the turmoil of the Renaissance. If they truly desired these Arts to be nothing more than numbers and “statistics” on a societal scale, however, I do believe they have their wish.)

        At any rate, it’ll be interesting to see how these scientific family disputes play out.

        • Scott Preston says :

          I wrote Beauregard to ask for clarification of some of this in their manifesto. I’ve been in contact with him before, when he was at the University of Montreal. It was kind of lengthy inquiry, so I’m not sure he’s going to respond.

          Or (reading between the lines), ‘It’s not that we want to get rid of Physics. We just want to knock Physics back into its proper place in the scientific pantheon. That’s all. Don’t mess around in our sandbox and we won’t mess around in yours.’

          Well, that’s a puzzling thing about the manifesto, which probably should have been made a declaration of independence of the Life Sciences then, but then it becomes puzzling whether they actually mean Life Sciences or some new Spiritual Science, which I’m sure is going to not impress the physical scientists anyway.

          But actually in bringing in quantum mechanics, the manifesto isn’t just declaring for the independence of the Life Sciences, and a restoration of life or spirit to the world conception, but seem to be suggesting that QM itself resembles more a Life Science because “quantum wierdness” resembles life process rather than mechanism. They’re not actually appealing for a two-world system (spirit and nature, life and matter) but for a one-world system — post-materialism.

          By the looks of it, this manifesto didn’t get legs under it. (and I certainly didn’t hear about it until you pointed it out). I think I know why, which I outlined in my email to Beauregard. But I’ll wait and see if he responds to that.

          There’s a way of reworking this post-materialist manifesto to make it compelling, persuasive, and effective, I think. All they had to do was insist on the priority of life-process. There was no need to bring in psychic phenomena as an example, and then equate that with “the spiritual”.

          One of the problems with their use of the term “spiritual” is that its evidently loaded with antiquated metaphysical assumptions derived from classical determinism itself. If you’re going to insist on a “post-materialist science”, you also have to rework the vocabulary for that science. “Consciousness”, “life”, “Nature”, “spiritual” (or “occult” and “supernatural”) are all loaded terms, limited by metaphysical assumptions that were pertinent to the world of classical mechanics and abstraction, and they all form a coherent “gestalt” or constellation of meaning in its terms. These very terms have to be salvaged from their bondage to metaphysical assumptions that were revelant only to classical physics and science.

          And it’s these implicit metaphysical assumptions, still determining the meaning of terms like “spiritual”, “natural”, “consciousness”, “life” etc that are the “mind-forg’d manacles” of Blake.

          • InfiniteWarrior says :

            There’s a way of reworking this post-materialist manifesto to make it compelling, persuasive, and effective, I think. All they had to do was insist on the priority of life-process. There was no need to bring in psychic phenomena as an example, and then equate that with “the spiritual”.

            Ah, so. Well, if anyone can iron out these wrinkles, that would be you.

            I sincerely hope he “responds.” It would be a great thing, not only for science but, indeed, for all of us.

        • Scott Preston says :

          One of the things you see in examining the history and philosophy of science and technology — say, an historical account like E.A. Burtt’s great book The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, is how true is Rosenstock-Huessy’s remark that a revolution is a process in language, or what Nietzsche would also call a “revaluation of values”.

          So how we use words and names, and how these condition the way we think, really matters, for words and names also have histories.

          You see, for example, how Kepler or Galileo recast certain words and names in other forms in order to make them work in the context of their new mathematical or mechanical conception of the world. They don’t mean today what they meant before Galileo or Newton appropriated them and reworked them to make them conformable to the new reality — words like “force”, “time”, “space”, or “life”, “nature” (and consequently “spiritual” and “supernatural”) all acquired different or altered meanings in the early modern age.

          And “consciousness”, as we noted earlier, apparently only came into use in the 16th century (coincident with “occult”), so it was already loaed with metaphysical assumptions derived from perspectivism, utilitarianism, dualism, and mechanism which are still influential in the total meaning of the term (which is sometimes why I prefer using the term “awareness” rather than consciousness). Consciousness, in other words, meant almost exclusively “mental-rational” or “perspectival” or “logico-mathematical”, and is still used as such — as synonymous with “mind”.

          This is why things lie “inner silence” are so important. Inner Silence allows us also to percieve the often hidden metaphysical assumptions that are conditioning and limiting our understanding of matters like “consciousness”, and are almost always inevitably invoked when we use the word.

          Same with “spiritual”. In fact, a completely new language was erected upon the metaphysical assumptions of the early modern period, a kind of total “revaluation of values”. And any prospects of new science must also execute a revaluation of values in the same way, via new meaning.

          • InfiniteWarrior says :

            any prospects of new science must also execute a revaluation of values in the same way, via new meaning.

            New? Or original.

            We keep hearing, “we need something new” or “there is a new technique for this (or that).” In fact, the mantra everywhere is “New and improved!” Invarably, however, what’s usually being described is in no way either “new” or “improved,” so much as a rememberance of the forgotten in the whole.

            I’m going to have to go with personal anecdote as a means of illustration here. When I speak of social movements in terms of “gravitating,” “orbits” and the like, it matters not a whit to me that few seem to “get” that I am speaking poetically as opposed to speaking in the terms of Newtonian Physics.

            Not. A. Whit.

            You are the universe in ecstatic motion. ~ Rumi

            In Greek, Physis wasn’t solely material. It was the realm of life and growth. Like Latin Natura was the living world — the realm of birth (hence “native”, “nativity” etc).

            Yes, indeed. And for some of us, at least, such terms have never deviated from their original meanings in anything other than sectarian’s minds. Hence my question: how does one “revalue” something that never lost its value in the first place? Why must we be forever “reevaluating” when we’re perfectly capable of seeing, appreciating and acknowleding the meaning and value of everything and everyone presently?

            Perhaps our energies would be better spent simply calling things by their true names, e.g. — oh, say — “insurance” rather “healthcare” or “access to healthcare.” That sort of thing.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    Anthropologist Genevieve Bell puts forward some pertinent questions that need to be addressed in dealing with technology in an article in today’s Guardian

  4. Abdulmunem Othman says :

    When The divine message to humanity is falsified and turned into a message of money, power, exploitation and superiority of one race over others. When a bunch of Jews pursued a bunch of Christian to ride with them the boat of the white men burden to move in the world stealing and subjugating. When humans relations have been broken and humans are thrown in a more broken relation thus they are forced to seek any bot to chat with. It is really a sad scene when humans started to be taught by the Sophia robot they have created under the tent of the so called united nation. God asked the angels ,do these humans worship you,the angels reply oh god no ,they are worshiping the jinns in whom they have invested their faith. It is a really disclosed world where the real and the unreal are being enacted on our global stage. We start talking about bot killers, bot chatters and bot teachers thus we have created a new atmosphere where talking about jinns and angels is no longer strange talk. It is an open mental landscape. It is a mixed story that needs to be retold anew in the frame of the manifesto IW linked to. So in line with this new human awareness that is moving toward reasserting the importance of people and the diversity of our lived experiences away from the single vision as Blake put it and to realize our moral obligation to talk fearlessly to pinpoint the ills of the perverted system like Whitehead who courageously said that it is sorrowful to see good people bowing under the most murderous governments in the world. The colonizing history of the west tells a lot in the way of confirming Whitehead diagnosis. This is not to pull old papers but to remind those who are insisting on pursuing the same path to remember the drastic changes taking place across the world, to reconsider the wrong material path they have pursued in the light of the new discoveries and new realizations. To realize that we are living in a new world of connection that is no longer prone to exploitation and aggression. A world ripe for pursuing new path away from the old path of exploitation and subjugation. A new path away from the scattered nation states that are hating each other into communities of empathetic relation under one god who is no longer can endure the perversion , a non-endurance that can b felt across the millions humans voices that are crying for change. A change which so many groups across the globe are working hard to bring about. It is a time for honest work supported by honest talk with the intention of self change as the first step in any other changes in order to start to withdraw gradually from underneath the shackles of this rotten system who is flying high the flag of lie and hypocrisy.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      A great nation is like a great man:
      When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
      Having realized it, he admits it.
      Having admitted it, he corrects it.
      He considers those who point out his faults
      as his most benevolent teachers.
      He thinks of his enemy
      as the shadow that he himself casts.

      If a nation is centered in the Tao,
      if it nourishes its own people
      and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
      it will be a light to all nations in the world.

      ~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

      ‘nough said.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      You may be interested in recent developments on The Growing Edge of Interspirituality.

  5. InfiniteWarrior says :

    ,they are worshiping the jinns in whom they have invested their faith.

    You know…. I wasn’t going to say it. But, at the latest mention of the “genie” having been let loose from its ‘bottle,’ there’s usually no mention of the Djinn…. Yeah.

  6. Scott Preston says :

    On occasion,I’ve mentioned that reductionism and fundamentalism are the exhausted residuaa of inspirations and ideals dating from Renaissance and Reformation, and pretty much connected with late modern/post modern nihilism.

    Martin Kettle writing in today’s Guardian also seems to have some thoughts on that — at least, as pertains to the Reformation and Brexit, and how precedents established 500 years ago still shape the modern outlook even if unconsciously. And that’s one of the problems of “post-historic man”.

    Are things like Brexit and Trump the expression of great new ideals and aspirations? Hardly, They’re insipid. And that’s precisely because they are the decayed residuaa and exhausted forms of what were once vital inspirations and ideals.

    Seems to me “insipid” is quite the right word for that.

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