“Art, like science, is restless. Art, like science, feeds on revolutions. To reach through the screen is no longer enough to state our empathetic desires. Today’s storyteller yearns for a sharper and more precise tool by which to power the machines of empathy. Virtual Reality is that tool. It is the apex, the hilt, the child of an artistic and technological revolution.
…Now, in our time, you can actually walk a mile in another man’s shoes.” – VRSE
The confluence of technology, art and content creation has allowed us to change the way we tell stories. This new way of storytelling is connecting humanity in a way that has never before been possible.
Psychologist Paul Ekman delineates three different types of empathy: Cognitive empathy, the ability to understand someone else’s point of view and know what they are thinking; emotional empathy, an emotional contagion that occurs from mirror neurons firing in the brain when one can sense another’s emotional state, and compassionate empathy, a deeper form of emotional empathy that moves one to act. Compassionate empathy, according to Ekman, is a skill that can take years to cultivate. All three are interconnected, and all three have the potential to encourage positive action and thus bridge inequality gaps.
AN EMPATHY DEFICIENCY
One of the largest impediments to alleviating the current climate crisis is inaction, caused by a lack of empathy and accountability. As an example, Hurricane Katrina’s destruction was exacerbated by the apathetic response from the parties charged with mitigating the emergency. Response times are lagged even longer when there is no mandate for action.
These fundamental deficiencies in empathy and accountability stunt action on behalf of government, corporations and individuals. The notion that a lack of innovation is the largest hurdle to the environmental crisis is flawed. Innovation is plentiful. Rather – and this is a generalization – those with resources, those best poised to alleviate the environmental crisis, cannot truly empathize with the manner in which environmental destruction is inflicting those without resources. There is a massive disparity between the effects of climate change on society in the developing world, versus those in the developed world. And, thus, those best poised to help are missing a sense of responsibility: either a.) “it is not my problem to fix” or b.) “the problem seems far away.”
But climate change is not far away. It is affecting millions of people every single day. In fact, climate change is arguably the largest problem humanity has ever faced.
VIRTUAL REALITY: THE ULTIMATE EMPATHY MACHINE
“Film is an incredible medium, but essentially, it’s the same now as it was then. It’s a group of rectangles that are played in a sequence. And we’ve done incredible things with those rectangles. But I started thinking about – is there a way that I can use modern and developing technologies to tell stories in different ways? I was trying to build the ultimate empathy machine. Let’s talk about Virtual Reality…it’s difficult to explain…because it’s a very experiential medium. It feels like real life, it feels like truth.”
– Chris Milk, award-winning filmmaker, director, photographer and Founder of VR Company, Within.
Chris Milk has done incredible work in the field of Virtual Reality and sums up the immense power in an inspiring Ted Talk: The Ultimate Empathy Machine.
I urge you to take ten minutes to watch:
The Ted Talk concludes with a clip of an ever-powerful VR film “Clouds Over Sidra”: a collaboration between Milk, film director Gabo Arora and the United Nations. Clouds over Sidra films a 12-year old girl who has been living in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan for the last year and a half.
“And when you’re sitting there in her room, watching her, you’re not watching it through a television screen, you’re not watching it through a window, you’re sitting there with her. When you look down, you’re sitting on the same ground that she’s sitting on. And because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You empathize with her in a deeper way.
And I think that we can change minds with this machine. And we’ve already started to try to change a few.
So we took this film to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. And we showed it to a group of people whose decisions affect the lives of people. And these are people who might not otherwise be sitting in a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan. But in January, one afternoon in Switzerland, they suddenly all found themselves there.”
Milk and the United Nations are working on producing more films with similar intent: to provide decision makers with better information such that action is no longer hindered. And so, through a pair of high-tech goggles and the production of valuable content, Chris Milk and the United Nations are literally changing the world.
Ovrture, a VR content studio, among other productions, has collaborated with MSNBC to film “Lockup 360″, allowing viewers to truly see behind the bars of America’s jails. The use of powerful content like Lockup 350 and Clouds over Sidra to influence decisions has the potential to change millions of lives. And there are other pockets of virtual reality initiatives that are doing their part to change the world. An MIT startup known as Rendever is delivering immersive virtual reality experiences to the elderly. Technology allows endless possibilities.
Somewhat paradoxically, this little piece of technology is connecting humans more than ever before.
Virtual Reality, once an isolated technology with its roots in sci-fi literature and its application solely for military applications and niche scientific experiences such as flight simulations, has finally caught on as a crucial medium through which to share ideas. In the 1990’s, funding for VR was sparse and R&D was limited as most technology companies could not yet foresee the commercialization and the power. Crowdfunding has effectively altered the dynamic between producers and consumers of content. The Oculus Rift raised $2.4 million from 10,000 contributors, spurring the revival of the entire VR industry. In 2014, Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion, solidifying the notion of VR as an emerging and highly powerful industry. The modern era of crowdfunding bypasses the hurdle of risk averse investors and enables startups to leap from prototype to production.
A NEW ADVENTURE: BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE
The time to act is now.
In collaboration with students and professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication, and Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, as well as virtual reality producers, The Sustainable Investor (while continuing to write) is embarking on a new adventure.
Before It’s Too Late (BITL) is a virtual reality exposition dedicated to climate change stories, simulations, and solutions, striving to change the climate change narrative by closing society’s empathetic distance from it in.
BITL’s first four storylines will show the story and offer solutions for: sea level rise, climate justice, water scarcity, and the U.S. energy transition. We are bringing our content, along with customized calls-to-action, on the road to policy makers and corporate leaders in order to drive systemic change. We are additionally measuring our impact from start to finish through a rigorous academic study that will measure intent to act and actual actions of our viewers. See website for more details.
Before It’s Too Late