You never get that close to someone in a park yelling their heart out without consequences.”

With every emerging consumer technology comes with it a baggage of myths and truths, positives and negatives. The issues are far and wide in their scope, and this is just one attempt at a sort of illumination.

“Why have we not had a more powerful storytelling vessel than cinema for 100 years? It’s not because nobody’s thought of a different storytelling structure. We need the next medium, and that medium is inevitably going to be birthed because of technological advances.”

This is a quote from Chris Milk on the potential of virtual reality technologies, as written in the Guardian this past January.[1] The article is titled Virtual reality documentaries ‘take the middle man out of journalism’. As is evident, Milk is caught up in a myth. A filmmaker, Milk has been behind music videos created for the likes of Arcade Fire and Kanye West, but has more recently acted as a primary force behind — “a collective of artists, technicians, thinkers, and innovators striving to create the world’s best experiential media.”

“So much of journalism is conveying a place and time that existed, to someone at a later date: giving a person the context and trying to make them feel as informed as if they were actually there,” he says. “Fundamentally, this is taking out the middleman in that process, and making you feel as if you were actually there.”

What Milk is describing here is a view that has long been associated with emerging technology. That new technologies offer us completely new experiences, divorced from the dull drudgery of now-past mediation. The screen is now so close to our eyes that it’s not even there? The cameraperson filming in such visual entirety, to the point that they’re not even directing the camera? To even attempt to make an association between virtual reality and a more objective experience is extremely problematic in its tendency toward ignoring the infinite implication . The mediation always already flows in every direction. From Neil Postman’s Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change:

“The first idea is that all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost.”[2]

Later in the article, Milk goes on to describe a VR documentary he completed recently, featuring the Millions March in NYC. An obviously loaded event if you had to choose one, Milk appears so immersed in the potential for his ideas that he forgets the reason everyone is there.

“As an example, Milk cites a section in the Millions March film where the camera gets up close with a man protesting in Washington Square Park. “You as the viewer are standing way inside his personal space, but you feel safe within the virtual reality world — you understand that this is not reality, it’s a recording of an event that happened. He’s not going to grab hold of you,” he says.”

To present the concept theorized by Nathan Jurgenson and others, it’s a classic case of Strong Digital Dualism where “The digital and physical are different realities, have different properties, and don’t interact.”[3] A dangerous place to be, given that these are real people we are dealing with on both ends of the headset. The virtual reality Milk presents is a document, and he is quick to imply both empathy and disassociation in the same sentence. Therefore, why does getting up close in someone’s recorded face bring me any closer to human experience? While this act may actually present a real personal security risk for said individual actually present at the protest, it offers the viewer safety — not in “a virtual reality world”, but in their own physical and very present environment. This is not to imply that everyone can and is able to attend a protest. Milk’s description is anything but enabling.

“I measure the worth of the work I’m making on two metrics: the first is how deeply can I affect other human beings, and the second is how many human beings can I deeply affect?” says Milk.

Furthermore, Millions March was intended to make a stand against the extreme and systemic violence placed upon actual physical bodies of people of color in America, so maybe we could push the conversation away from it being some sort of stage for a technological spectacle? As is common practice when technologies are involved, we tend to talk about the literal material alone, forgetting the actual world it exists within. So simultaneously you feel as if you were there, while also understanding that it’s a recording of an event. Either way you’re not there, and either way you’re actually alright. From iPhone to Gorgon Stare, we can be sure that mediated viewing does not bring us closer to some sort of reality we cannot otherwise access, it presents a completely different experience. This experience is not worthless on its own, but technologies enable utilization, not strong concepts.

Virtual Reality technologies do contain a lot of promise, and at this point the research on empathetic effect in “virtual environments” is showing some positive results. For instance, there is strong evidence that VR interactions are proving especially helpful for those dealing with PTSD. I think we need to be wary of what we might be forgetting when we talk about these technologies — the realities they bring into being, the realities we enable with technology, and the histories surrounding such ideals of progress and their alternatives. A person with a hammer sees everything as a nail, but the house is already built.

“That’s really something else. Like all, all, like… I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: NO FEAR. I mean, really, no fear. If I could have that half of my life. No fear. Lots of children have no fear. That’s the closest way, that’s the only way I can describe it. That’s not all of it, but it is something to really, really feel… wow… Like a new way of seeing. Like a new way of seeing something.” — Nina Simone

How could we use these technologies not to just emulate existing experience and narrative, but to actually create different experiences and narratives? How could virtual reality technologies enable a communication of existing oppressions, issues, contexts — and affect change? How can the emergence of a new technology stop enabling tendencies to ignore, and start addressing what has been ignored? Could these technologies enable a new way of seeing something, and what will we be seeing?





[4] (thanks jenn lowe)

As originally published in the Strategic Plan 2025 newspaper.