VR in digital capitalism

An essay on reality and virtual reality, from Velázquez to Oculus Rift.VR: tool of social isolation and propaganda, rather than “empathy machine”?

Marta Di Francesco
10 min readMar 29, 2016
FOVE eye tracking VR headset
  1. Introduction - Is VR capitalism masked as socialism ?

There are many articles being written about VR. Virtual Reality is a hot topic of speculation for creative industries, from agencies to production companies. Many are jumping on the golden ship, sailing towards the lucrative shores of the future.

Not adding to the already exhaustive list of articles being written about VR or to the most excellent debate that has taken place at the Versions Conference, this wants to be a small counter point-of-view of VR as the ultimate tool of digital capitalism.

The biggest irony and subtle strategy of Virtual Reality is that it is marketed as a tool of empathy, but empathy is one of the stronghold values of socialism.

VR promises a fully immersive interactive experience for the audience, offering the customer freedom of multiple choices.

VR promises to be an “empathy machine”. But what if things aren’t that simple? VR is a political act. It’s capitalism. Customer is king.

2. VR in digital capitalism

Every medium is political, implying a choice. Choosing a medium over another requires awareness, Virtual Reality can not be considered without questioning, as other technologies, its use and effect on society.

VR production is still young and innocent, and yet in the hands of a small number of individuals since the costs of productions are elevated. At the moment VR is receiving funding not only from technology companies but also from large corporations and militarised states (U.S. especially).

Some argue that VR will enhance visibility over other people’s point of view, but what if it is blinding us even more over certain realities since framed from a Western corporate and capitalistic point of view in the first place ?

Professor Janet H.Murray asks: “Is VR the appropriate way to engage sympathy for child refugees or are child refugees the appropriate content to expand the market for VR?”

The desire to create fully immersive experiences has been with us for thousands of years: from architecture to music, storytellers have always tried to pull the audience into an immersive space. The main difference between these last two and VR is its social participation.

Digital capitalism relies mainly on social isolation, masked under the illusive feature of connectivity within the virtual space. Marxist critique has been extensively looking at the combination between exploitation in the digital space combined with a process of de-alienation. Take Facebook and VR for example: in both, audience participation is exploitative and de-alienating.

“The capacity of Social Network to exploit audience work is dependent on its capacity to alleviate alienation” (Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism, Fuchs and Mosco, 2016).

Zuckerberg at Samsung VR Presentation, 2016

3. VR can not be defined as an “empathy machine”.

To say that because it’s offering more pixels, VR is more immersive, more emotional, or empathic than all mediums before it, is a simplification only justified by corporate marketing needs.

Empathy is in this context defined as the ability to see reality from different points of view. But are these points of view merely a geographical enhancement ? Or can they have a real value?

VR can not claim to show more truth about reality simply because it is offering a 360 degree view. That would be a totalitarian, anti-democratic statement.

Truth is of course a complex subject and its subjectivity has been explored extensively from philosophy to photography.

In film, this subject was explored particularly well in Rashomon by Kurosawa. Each character tells his own different side of the story, each story sometimes clashing completely with the one told from another character. Different characters see reality in a different way — which is not the same as being able to gaze from different angles in the same 360° view. It is illusory to suggest freedom of choice of different perspectives — when the stage is set.

Rashomon, 1950, by Akira Kurosawa

In painting, one can look at Velasquez’s masterpiece in realistic portraiture Las Meninas, as an early effort to recreate a full 360 degree reality.

The painting reveals different dimensions of space and layers of depth: from the wall behind the character at the end of the room, to the mirror in which the royals are reflected.

The vanishing point of the perspective is in the doorway, and the character standing there, is seen only by the king and queen, who share the viewer’s point of view, and not by the figures in the foreground.

Las Meninas, 1656, by Diego Velázquez
Las Meninas (detail), 1656 by Diego Velázquez

The separation of space is also a way to separate the different classes. The painting creates a realistic and democratic situation, in which the commissioner, the creator, the spectator and the subject co-exist.

What is striking here is the democratic effort in offering a wider point of view.

We, the spectators, are looking from the point of view of the Royal couple, yet their powerful presence in the scene is acknowledged by the mirror.

There are different ways to read realities in this painting; the scale of relations is there, and the composition’s visual grammar is acknowledging its power structure and class system.

In film, the effort to immerse the audience into the story is explored frequently and in different ways. Techniques include a particular use of cinematography, sound, camera and light; the creation of a self contained world, like in 2001 Space Odyssey (1968), the use of one long continuous take, like in Russian Ark (2002) and the recent Victoria (2016), or in the case of Solaris (1972) with its claustrophobic dreamlike dimension, and in All Is Lost (2013) with its lack of dialogue and microcosm of despair. In all these cases, the experience is intimate, close.

2001 Space Odyssey, 1968, by Stanley Kubrick
Russian Ark, 2002, by Aleksandr Sokurov

4. The Empathy Fallacy

As a tool of digital capitalism, VR offers freedom, interactivity, choices of perspectives, empowerment of the feeling of being there in the moment, in someone else’s shoes and to feel ultimately, the much overused empathy.

Empathy (from the Ancient Greek word ἐμπάθεια empatheia, from ἐν (en), “in, at” and πάθος (pathos), “passion” or “suffering”) is something evoked through poetry also, with no need of special effects. The danger here is to confuse the meaning of the word ‘empathy’ with the ability to experience a story through a first person point of view.

Since empathy involves understanding the emotional states of other people and not simply experiencing what they see, VR can not be described as an empathy machine, but as simply a 1st person POV tool.

So far, we are witnessing either entertainment-focused VR projects or humanitarian ones. This polarised view of where the medium sits, can obfuscate something important: before immersing ourselves in the first person point-of-view, we are already viewing a virtual reality from the point of view of the maker or the corporations that own the technology, produces the content, and distributes it.

The moment a company worth nearly $50Billion like Facebook, Sony or Google, produces the majority of VR content, or a governmental organisation like the United Nations funds a documentary about refugees, we need to ask ourselves if that film will be telling the story from the refugee point-of-view, or providing a very selected framing of that supposedly truthful 360 world view, just like photo journalism doesn’t claim to show the truth because of its realism.

Take Clouds Over Sidra for example; would a refugee direct the same VR documentary (about themselves) in the same way?

A recent TED talk about VR and empathy mentions that “VR feels like the truth”, and that it “connects humans in a way never seen before”. Those sound very worrying sentences to me. Wouldn’t it be a bigger connection to actually be under a tent with the refugee?

There is an American Indian saying: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins”.

The American Indian Genocide as example of lack of empathy, whose story is still not fully told nowadays.

American Indian history is actually a great example of stories that have been told for centuries from a biased point-of-view, with New Americans writing the history books. The Native Americans are still now struggling to make the rest of the world aware of their story of mass genocide.

And as far as empathy through storytelling is concerned, we are better off telling each other stories around a fire or talking to a stranger in a bar in real life.

“Pretty soon we are going to live in a world where everyone has the power to share and experience whole scenes as if you are just there, right there in person. Imagine being able to sit in front of a campfire and hang out with friends anytime you want,” (Zuckerberg, 2016).

“The Oculus Rift does not so much let us be individuals together as it lets us be alone together” (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together 2012).

5. VR from tool of social isolation to tool of propaganda

People label VR as an active form of entertainment, but I would argue that it is the ultimate passive entertainment tool.

VR experiences absorb the viewer’s senses completely. As opposed to, say, a book or an art gallery, where the individual has more time, distance, and room to organise his ideas and make up his own view.

The fully immersive quality of VR is in reality a commodity to bend our will to even more passive engagement. We are overwhelmed by information and are free to navigate it but there is little room for us to question, or “fill the gaps”.

This doesn’t trigger our imagination, but rather, we submit to it.

“There’s something hideously limited about an imagination that sees VR as a tool for placating the world’s poor. This feels like a Western fantasy, a dream that a new technology will solve a problem, one those trying to solve it don’t really understand.” (Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media)

A machine — owned by a corporation — can not possibly make us more human and more connected. It contributes to more isolation from each other, less of the “real” communication we need. In addition, we are more easily manipulated in working as “individuals” rather than “communities”.

Its immersive quality makes it a very passive experience rather than a supposedly interactive one and an even more powerful tool in the hands of those who use it to transmit their own views and values.

VR, like other media, can be used to influence, persuade and manipulate, threatening the individual’s ability to think for themselves; and that is the very basis democracy itself. In 2002, Adam Curtis’ documentary “The Century of Self,” covered how corporations used Freud’s findings and the media to make people want things they didn’t need through manipulative techniques appealing to people’s unconscious fears and desires. This is even more true now with the rise of social networks, the age of the selfie, and individualism, fuelling the corrosion of social bonds and communal networks, because everyone is on their own.

By only viewing the world in isolation, and from your own individual perspective, you lack the perspective of others, and the dialogue that automatically follows, on a social setting.

In terms of socio-political themed content, creating awareness about a social issue is very different from claiming to portray a truthful reality of it. And one of the greatest contradictions is to witness first-world people wanting to understand refugees better while doing so from the comfort of their safe first-world living room, with an expensive piece of technology that is unaffordable by most.

Sidra, the protagonist of the documentary Clouds over Sidra, 2016
One of the UN diplomats experiencing Clouds over Sidra, 2016

VR has been described as a way to bring you under the tent of a refugee but I believe that a technical gadget as extension, can not compete with the humanity that should be cultivated inside of us already.

Education and culture make up the values that help create empathy, whereas promoting technology as an empathy medium is a marketing strategy, used perhaps to try to distract from the lucrative and uncanny long-term interests of these big companies.

The empathy potential of VR is real, but sits within the individual.

6. Conclusion - Hopes for VR

Virtual Reality as a new storytelling medium offers many exciting new possibilities and genuinely adds to the tools of artists, journalists and even commercial companies.

As always, it is what we do with it that counts.

There is an over-emphasis on either entertainment or journalism right now within the Virtual Reality scene. Humanitarian stories like Clouds over Sidra, The Nepal Quake Project, Welcome to Aleppo, The Giant, play well with new audiences exploring the medium. But using this medium in a way that is reflecting the complex contradictions and intricate complexity of our world is essential, if VR is to grow into a diverse and multi-layered medium.

I am excited about VR as a new canvas that will welcome a more diverse array of authors and creators working and experimenting with the medium, asking more questions and keeping the conversation sober, instead of making truth and empathy claims.

The challenge is to explore new narrative possibilities without conforming to the interests of the companies that own the technology, or distribute the content and succeed to tell stories that still nowadays struggle to be told, even in linear film.

Let’s use this medium in a way that reflects the complex, infinitely contradicting nature of reality, and let’s not claim it to be more truthful than other media. Let us be aware of the existing eco-system in and around the medium. That is more important than all the much discussed UX and technical challenges that VR as a medium faces today.

I would like to conclude with something my great grandmother used to say: “You don’t really know someone until you ate kilos of salt with them”.