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“My name is Sidra”: how virtual reality could combat compassion fatigue

We look away from the suffering in humanitarian crises because it’s so vast. Virtual reality invites us to look at individuals’ experiences again.

In a 2015 Ted talk, artist and filmmaker Chris Milk argues that virtual reality can be “the ultimate empathy machine”. His virtual reality company, Vrse.works, has worked with the UN to produce a series of short virtual reality documentaries about the challenges facing mankind, from the Syrian refugee crisis to climate change.

“Virtual reality” refers to film-like experiences which attempt to replicate the real world. This could mean through the introduction of smells along with sight and sound, or the more common use of stereoscopy glasses or goggles to create an illusion of depth. Often, the viewer can interact in some way with the content of the film. 

The first UN virtual reality film, Clouds Over Sidra, is told from the point of view of 12-year-old Sidra, a Syrian refugee living in Jordan.  It’s beautifully produced and scored: the viewer moves through the rooms of Sidra’s temporary home, and using online controls we can follow her baby brother as he runs across the floor or look more closely at the family's sparse possessions. Sidra shows us around her school and the camp gym, where men work out, she thinks, “just to look good in the mirror”. We gradually learn of the horrors that have befallen her family as we walk through her world with her.

The aim of these films is to make us care about these crises on a deep, personal level. We know instinctively that it’s easier to emote with a single person than a faceless crowd of thousands, and this tactic takes that idea to its extreme: VR places you next to the person you could help with your donations, and allows you to directly engage by "walking" around the film yourself. The near-banality of Sidra’s film is its strength: the balance of dark and light in her life is easier to understand than a montage of outright misery, because it more closely mirrors our own.

Compassion fatigue is the subconscious decision to look away, because human suffering is so vast and horrifying. Virtual reality invites you to look around, to move deeper inside the crisis. You are literally, as Milk puts it, “inside the frame”.

As he explains in his Ted talk:

“You’re sitting on the same ground as [Sidra]. And because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You empathise with her in a deeper way.  I think that we can change minds with this machine”.

It is possible that he already has. The film was shown at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last January, to people who, as Milk describes it, “wouldn’t otherwise be sitting in a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan”. As a result, it was also shown at the Humanitarian Pledging conference for Syria later that year, where $3.8bn was raised to tackle the crisis. Gabo Arora, a senior UN advisor, told development website Devex that the film was a “key reason” that the event generated far more than the $2.3bn originally expected.

An empathy machine?

The UN series is unquestionably affecting, and, hopefully, effective, but it’s not clear yet whether virtual reality really is better at making us emote than other types of media.

One study has tried to pin this down, to some surprising results. “Through the Eyes of a Bystander: Understanding VR and Video Effectiveness on Bystander Empathy, Presence, Behavior, and Attitude in Bullying Situations”, a 2015 study carried out by researchers at Virginia Tech, placed participants as bystanders in a bullying scenario. There were three different environments; two virtual reality, one video.

Responses to the three were very similar, except on a single metric: empathy. Surprisingly, participants in the virtual reality scenarios (which used graphics rather than filming) had less empathy for the victim than in a normal video.

The researchers weren’t 100 per cent sure which elements of virtual reality led to the lower empathy levels, but they hypothesise that we relate strongly to things that look “real”, as opposed to virtual scenarios which simply have a 360-degree purview. Therefore, they write, “findings here suggest that photorealistic graphics should be used in VR simulations to evoke empathy”.

Perhaps the best way to think about it is to imagine media as a spectrum, where at one end is a static line drawing and at the other is real experience. We’re more likely to relate to media products on the latter end of the spectrum, such as live-action films, especially in 3D.

Therefore, while it hasn’t been tested in a comparable study, the extension of this logic is that UN style of live-action virtual reality (achieved using 360 degree cameras) could evoke even more empathy than both live-action films, or virtual reality using graphics.

For now, we're left with Milk’s promise that VR “connects humans to humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media. It can change peoples’ perception of each other. VR has the potential to actually change the world.”

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Blow-dried and supplicant, Ivanka shows the limits of the power women are allowed in Trumpworld

A new book by the US President’s daughter has surpisingly strong echoes of medieval royalty.

Exactly 500 years ago this month, the apprentices of London rose up, ­angry with Flemish immigrants and the bankers of Lombard Street. The race riot was quelled only when a couple of dukes sent in their private armies. Hundreds of looters were arrested and some were hanged, drawn and quartered. But some rioters were as young as 13 and the city’s residents felt sorry for them.

Henry VIII wanted to look magnanimous, but not weak. And so, at the trial in Westminster Hall on 7 May, ­Cardinal Wolsey first asked for mercy on the youngsters’ behalf. He was refused.

And then three women came forward: Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters Mary and Margaret, the widowed queens of France and Scotland. Faced with three women on their knees, the king relented. “It was a scene straight from the pages of chivalry,” writes Sarah Gristwood in her history of Renaissance women and power, Game of Queens. “An intercessory function, of course, had been traditional for queens, from the biblical Esther and Bathsheba to the Virgin Mary.”

Whenever contemporary politics gets too depressing, I take refuge in history. I always hope I will gain some perspective from people whose problems are very different from my own. Yes, climate change is terrifying; but at least I don’t have scrofula! Yet modern life has a way of creeping back. Late-medieval Europe was full of resentment for “aliens”, for example, who were felt to be prospering at the expense of native populations, even if those tensions were often expressed in religious rather than nationalist terms. It was Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, who expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find such strong echoes of medieval royalty in Ivanka Trump’s new book, Women Who Work. I won’t waste your time by attempting to review this seminal tome, especially as it’s largely constructed out of bits of other self-help books. The advice boils down to: be “multi-dimensional”; don’t be afraid to use “architect” as a verb; feel free to turn down Anna Wintour, when she offers you a job at Vogue straight out of university, because your true passion is real estate. If it’s a busy time at work, as it was for Ivanka on the campaign trail, go into “survival mode”. (“Honestly,” she writes, “I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”) Something for everyone.

Still, Women Who Work gave me the chance to contemplate the point of Ivanka Trump. I’ve seen her far more than I have heard her, which is no surprise, as her role in the administration is largely symbolic. What is Ivanka if not a Renaissance queen, tearfully pleading with her lord to show mercy? She is, we are told, his conscience. When his daughter’s clothing line was dropped by the US retailer Nordstrom in February, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Two months later, her name was invoked again. The First Daughter was distraught – “heartbroken and outraged”, she tweeted – at the sight of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime. This prompted her father to bomb an airbase to atone for the slaughter of what his statement referred to as “beautiful babies”. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence,” her brother Eric told the Telegraph. “I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’”

This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanising, empathetic. Their tears moisten the oak-like carapace of great leaders, showing them that sometimes it’s OK to be kind – but obviously not too kind, because that’s a bit soppy and girly and gay. Women are naturally prone to emotion, of course, unlike sturdy, ­rational men, who get so cross about the way TV news is reporting their firing of the FBI director that they start sending unhinged tweets implying they have incriminating “tapes” of White House conversations.

In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway. (As New York magazine urged acidly on 13 April, “Someone Please Show Ivanka Pictures of Starving Yemeni Children”.) Ivanka’s whole book is designed to render female power unthreatening by making it “feminine”; merely a complement to male power instead of a challenge to it.

To reassure us that she isn’t some frumpy bluestocking, Ivanka has crafted an image of expensive, time-consuming perfection: perfect white teeth, perfect blow-dried hair, perfectly toned body. Her make-up, clothes and home are all styled in unobtrusive neutrals. Together it says: let me in the room and I promise not to be a nuisance or take up too much space, even on the colour wheel. It’s noticeable that no woman in Trump’s orbit has “let herself go”, even though his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has the complexion of a body that’s been found after two weeks in the water. I somehow doubt he ever makes “time for self-care”.

And don’t come at me with all that garbage about a nice frock and a manicure being “empowering”. Look at Donald Trump, the one with his own military: he has a fat arse and uses Sellotape to hold his ties in place. A president is allowed to have appetites – for women, for food, for power. His supplicant daughter gets to peddle platitudes about how you should “bond with your boss”. (Being a blood relative helps, although, sadly, Women Who Work is silent on what to do if he also fancies you.)

Is this how far we’ve come in 500 years? Ivanka Trump might try to sell herself as a modern woman, but her brand of female power is positively medieval.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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