Oiling the Empathy Machine

The Echo Chamber – Notes 04

We’re well underway with making our VR drama Echo Chamber for the BBC. One of the words that has been coming up a lot during our research and discovery phase and in meetings is EMPATHY. VR has famously been described by Chris Milk in his TED talk as an empathy machine. It’s a nice, pithy high concept phrase that has in turn been repeated all over the place by journalists and commentators. A more empathetic world is a better world right? I mean, we all want to understand more, to empathise more, because that will mean that we care more. If we care more, we can’t fail to do more – at least that’s how the received wisdom goes. That means that VR is going to make the world a better place. We’re going to be immersed in worlds and introduced to people whose stories we must empathise with.

Chris Milk’s film has reached around 1.25 million views via TED and ‘VR = Empathy’ is a compellingly neat narrative – but with all respect to Chris and all the other creators (myself included) who want you to watch and engage with our media – we would say that wouldn’t we..?

L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat

There’s a famous and almost certainly apocryphal story of how cinema audiences in 1895 fled in terror from the Lumière brothers 50″ film of a train (silently) thundering towards them. Whether or not the story is true, it demonstrates our belief and hope in the visceral power of media to create impact, make us feel and care and in turn act.

It will be entertainment, spectacle, sensation (depressing probably porn too) that power VR to a popular mass market. In our newly drawn media world the power of VR to act as an empathy machine has to be up-sold. Otherwise nobody will see your film. Nobody will empathise. Nobody will care.

Nick Fraser the commissioning editor of Storyville has spoken about ‘Why Documentaries Matter‘ and in a talk to the Frontline Club he outlined his thoughts and has written comprehensibly in a report for the Reuters Institute on the challenges of keeping documentary vital and relevant. Nick once told me that people want to believe that documentary can change the world, but that it doesn’t. People change the world. In the introduction to his paper for the Reuters Institute he quotes Simone Weil.

The most important modern philosophical problem is attention.

Simone Weil

Perhaps if the real problem we’re facing is with attention, then maybe VR has an opportunity, however fleeting to be the thundering train, the talkies, cinemascope, the perecpto of the moment? We’re beginning to think of VR as more of an attention machine that an empathy machine. If that leads audiences to empathy, laughs, tears, fear and all the rest then great.

So… Sure – VR is an empathy machine. Clap on those goggles, oil the empathy machine and get ready to pay attention, empathise, care – and act!