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.