In his words, “our seemingly objective engagements with the world around us are subordinate to a faith that orients our visual experience and, moreover, produces our ability to see certain things. Seeing is not believing. Rather, to believe, in a sense, is to see.”
So how can we apply this lesson to the promises surrounding VR? Even as we are seeing and experiencing something different, we do not simply discard our prior perceptions of the world. One of the problems with VR is that it can present another opportunity for “poverty porn” and cultural tourism that reinforces current power dynamics between those who do the seeing and those who are watched.
Even so, what makes and will continue to make VR and other empathy machines so appealing, not just for big business but also for numerous NGOs, the United Nations, and the UNICEF, which are using it to fundraise for human rights campaigns,27 is that they seem to offer a technical fix for deep-seated divisions that continue to rip the social fabric.
For instance, there is growing buzz around using VR for “immersive career and vocational training” for prisoners to gain job and life skills prior to release.28 At first glance, we might be tempted to count this as an abolitionist tool that works to undo the carceral apparatus by equipping former prisoners with valuable skills and opportunities. But what will the job market be like for former prisoners who have used VR? Research shows that there is widespread discrimination in the labor market, especially against African Americans convicted of a felony. And the labor market is already shaped by a technology that seeks to sort out those who are convicted of crimes, or even arrested, regardless of race. A US National Employment Law Project report shows that a staggering number of people – 65 million – “need not apply” for jobs from the numerous companies who outsource background checks to firms that, reportedly, look “just” at the facts (arrested? convicted?).29 When such technological fixes are used by employers to make hiring decisions in the name of efficiency, there is little opportunity for a former felon, including those who have used VR, to garner the empathy of an employer who otherwise might have been willing to ponder over the circumstances of an arrest or conviction.