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“Feeling prejudice by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is what VR was made for.”
— Jeremy Bailenson, Director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
Earlier this year I was intrigued to learn that, in a joint venture with Stanford University, the NFL planned to use Virtual Reality (VR) not just to train athletes, but also to tackle sexism and racism. Via a series of diversity training simulations the initiative provided an immersive environment in which participants were given an idea of how it felt to be the victim of stereotyping and discrimination. According to former NFL athlete and current Executive VP of Football Operations Troy Vincent: “VR can deliver on real social issues that allow people to be better.”
At the time I mused on Twitter: “NFL uses virtual reality to confront racism & sexism, maybe Trump campaign could benefit from a few Oculus Rifts?”
So I found it ironic that just last week Palmer Luckey—the founder of one of the best known VR technologies, the aforementioned Oculus Rift—was outed as having close ties to Nimble America, a group which supports Trump’s campaign by circulating negative memes of Hillary Clinton (AKA “shitposting”). Although Luckey has disputed the extent of his involvement with Nimble America, his dubious backpedalling has done little to assuage a number of socially-minded VR enthusiasts.
As one redditor, who goes by the handle rlg, laments: “The worst part is that I bought into VR and Oculus [because] it has the potential to change how people view the world. It’s an empathy headset. You can literally walk in someone else’s shoes, see the horrors of war up close, meet people around the world and understand them more viscerally. Yet here is Palmer pushing for a degradation in our virtual community, supporting a candidate who strictly promotes fear of ‘the other’ instead of trying to understand them. VR has the potential to make internet communication more heartfelt and real. But Palmer has decided to use his capital to support a fucking meme factory that delves online discussion into racist, angry, anti-intellectual bullshit.”
There’s so much feeling here. Belief in the transformative and beneficial potential of this emerging technology is mixed with an anger so forceful that it threatens to burst the utopian bubble. It’s as if, for rlg, the actions of Luckey and Trump weaken the hope that VR really will help us become better humans, as opposed to merely more isolated, selfish ones.
This case is a reminder that politics is everywhere: not just in the billboards we see at election time, or in debates between candidates battling over policies and punchlines, but in nearly every decision we make, from what shoes we buy to what coffee we drink. And yes, to what technology we use as well.
In our capitalist paradigm the decisions we make as consumers are powerful and the growing movement of political consumerism suggests that increasingly we’re making these decisions not just on price point or popularity, but also on ethical considerations. In the past few days a number of companies have announced they’re no longer going to develop content for the Oculus Rift, and the backlash on reddit has been typically fierce. At the moment I suspect Luckey might be pretty keen to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.