Facebook’s Virtual Reality: A Nonfictional Conduit for Empathy or Shameless Corporate Promotion?

Was it insensitive for the Facebook CEO totoura flooded Puerto Rico using social virtual reality or was it an effective demonstration of the ways in which VR can hopefully incite empathy?

It seems that every corner of the tech world is enamored with virtual reality (VR). Whether it’s tech giants like Samsung or smaller enterprises like Bricks and Goggles, many of the most revered figures in technology have come out to support the nascent technology. In fact, Facebook was one of the first ones to join the mainstream bandwagon, buying Oculus Rift for $2 billion before any had even shipped. It was a bold move, one that sent ripples through the tech industry. It signaled to everyone that VR was certainly here to stay.

And it seems Facebook is ready to begin using its lofty acquisition, having recently launched a beta version of their take on virtual reality, aptly named Facebook Spaces. It’s a fledgling product that utilizes the Oculus Rift to put the user into any virtual space anywhere in the world (or beyond). From the top of Mount Saint Helena in California to isolated craters on the moon, Facebook Spaces is purported to give users the opportunity to see everything–all from the comfort of anywhere else in the world.

To promote the new product Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the company’s head of social virtual reality, Rachel Franklin, performed a live stream that demonstrated its uses. They visited the moon, Zuckerberg’s home, an auditorium space and… a flooded Puerto Rico. It was strange destination, one that was intended to demonstrate the capabilities of their new social virtual reality tool and the empathetic modes in which a tool like Spaces could incite. But critics were quick to point out that it was a bizarrely thoughtless self-promotion that was tacky at best and insensitive at worst. From CNBC to The Guardian, media outlets questioned Zuckerberg’s actions, with Olivia Solon of The Guardian calling it “tone-deaf.”

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Zuckerberg and Franklin’s high-fiving over a disaster zone points out the ethical issues that come up in occupying a physical space via virtual means

Indeed, it is troubling to see a smiling cartoon of Zuckerberg and Franklin high-fiving over what is utter environmental devastation. Whether it is their emphatic positivity or their seemingly obtuse disregard for the horrid conditions that has decimated the country, many believe that Zuckerberg and Franklin were insensitive to the plight of Puerto Rican people. But that is not to say that they did not attempt to shine a light on the disaster. In fact, they did–by yet again shamelessly self-promoting their sense of generosity. Zuckerberg was quick to point out that they donated $1.5 million (a drop in the ocean of money that Facebook has) to Red Cross and have established population zones to help locate places that need the most help.

But it seems that the biggest issue with Facebook’s promotional use of social virtual reality is their (lack of) occupation of space. When these individuals “teleport” themselves into the middle of a disaster zone, they are not physically occupying the same space as the individuals that are stuck there. They are doing so from the comfort of their home, where warmth, shelter, food, and comforts are fingertips away. All they have to do is remove the headset and they’re back in their comfortable spaces, away from the tragedy that they had “empathetically lived.” At one point, Franklin muses, “it’s crazy to feel like you’re in the middle of it.” Franklin is right to understand that she is indeed not there–she is simply occupying a virtual space that does not represent the hardship and pain of the individuals affected by Hurricane Maria.

The issue becomes even more insensitive when Franklin and Zuckerberg, seemingly bored from the destruction surrounding them, decide to laughingly zap back to their sunny California offices. They do not care about the destruction, the devastation or the suffering–as ordinary users barely will as well. By not occupying the same physical space as the disaster-afflicted individuals, Zuckerberg and Franklin are signaling that they are willing to help–but under the condition that they not physically be there and that they be able to promote their product using a tragedy. It’s a bizarre promotion in which we understand that their presence there does nothing but create a sense of indifference. It’s a problematic issue, one that relies on empathy to make one feel as though they are indeed in the shoes of hurricane victims.

But that is not the case as Lev Manovich points out in his essay, Visual Technologies as Cognitive Prostheses: A Short History of the External Visualization of the Mind. Paradigms of visual information suggest that there is a isomorphic viewpoint that is singular to everyone. What I see in my visual experience is exactly the same as you would see. It’s a theory that takes the process of cognitive internalization and subjective representation out of the equation, leaving one’s arguments, thoughts, and beliefs to be completely surmised from the visual data alone. There is no mental subjectivity according to isomorphism. Manovich argues that this notion is “[re]ignited by every new round of visualization technology” including the virtual reality worlds of today (209).

While VR pioneer Jaron Lanier points out in Manovich’s essay that VR has the capacity of introducing a world of “post-symbolic communication,” Manovich is correct in realizing that that will lead to “the ultimate nightmare of democracy” (210). By creating the “single mental space that is shared by everybody that results in communicative acts that always are ideal,” VR stands to eliminate the exact issue that Zuckerberg and Franklin see themselves in right now–a misunderstanding of humanitarian intention (210).

But that is impossible and absurd according to Manovich. As the theorist points out, “regardless of what visual forms can be presented before the eye (diagrams, photographs, film images), they are subjected to complicated processing by the nervous system, which constructs its own internal representations” (209). Isomorphic viewpoints are an impossibility that cannot exist due to the very nature of being human. Subjectivity is arguably the most prescient mode of consciousness for our differences is what make us unique and individualistic. It gives our lives meaning. And by creating a virtual broad brush stroke that singularizes anything and everything into one is to eliminate our humanity, even with the all-encompassing technology of VR.

The intention of Zuckerberg’s promo stunt was to incite empathy in viewers. To show that users (and perhaps even documentary filmmakers) could provoke stronger senses of empathy through VR. After all, tricking one’s mind into believing that they are actually in the disaster zones could make them feel more emotional and donate to causes. But how can one truly feel that they are in the shoes of those individuals? How can one truly feel more empathetic when one can simply remove the VR headset and be literally transported back to the comfort of their homes? That is the inherent issue in utilizing VR for charitable reasons—it is an ethical minefield that questions intention and execution. And before we can do something like Zuckerberg and Franklin did, we must ask ourselves: how would others see this in a non-isomorphic world?


– Riyad Mammadyarov