2.06 | 01.05.18

If virtual reality is an empathy machine, can it also be a propaganda machine? In this episode of Soonish, we visit a groundbreaking exhibit that uses VR to explore the psychology of war. "The Enemy" proves we're well beyond the Uncanny Valley, and that it's time to consider how this powerful new medium could be a force for mischief as well as enlightenment.

Virtual reality is a concept that's been around since the 1970s, but that's finally coming into its own as a medium for storytelling, education, and entertainment.

The Enemy was directed by world-renowned photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa. It introduced audiences to VR avatars representing six fighters, one from each side of three bloody and intractable conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel and the occupied territories, and El Salvador. 

The exhibit was surprising in many ways—for the power of its storytelling, for the way the story itself responded to visitors' actions, and especially for the realism of the VR avatars.

Thanks to advances in 3D scanning technology and computer graphics, we've moved well beyond the "uncanny valley"—the realm where computer simulations of humans are only good enough to be creepy—into exciting new territory where all reminders of the medium's artificiality fall away. VR's much-vaunted power as an "empathy machine" can now be used to explore complex issues and to tell deeply human stories.

But as we've learned from the epidemic of fake news and hate-mongering on social media, every new medium can be misused. VR "is an empathy machine, but it's also a propaganda machine," Ben Khelifa says. The episode builds toward an argument that to cope with VR's spread, we'll need to devise new kinds of media literacy. 

The episode grew out of a piece I wrote for the January 2018 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine. It was a review of a groundbreaking virtual-reality exhibit featured by the MIT Museum in Cambridge, MA, from October to December of 2017.  In the episode, you'll go inside the exhibit itself, to get a taste of why it was so powerful and thought-provoking. And you'll meet Ben Khelifa, as well as MIT Museum director John Durant and a professor of digital media and artificial intelligence at MIT named Fox Harrell, who collaborated with Ben Khelifa on the interactive aspects of the exhibit.

Photo of Jean de Dieu by Karim Ben Khelifa. Photos and sound files used by permission of the MIT Museum.


Mentioned In This Episode

The Enemy (official website)

This VR Exhibit Lets You Connect with the Reality of War, by Wade Roush, MIT Technology Review, December 6, 2017

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything, by Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith

Mission ISS from Magnopus

Karim Ben Khelifa, Arts at MIT profile

The MIT Museum

John Durant, Director, The MIT Museum

Fox Harrell, Professor of Digital Media & AI, MIT Comparative Media Studies program and MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression, by Fox Harrell, The MIT Press, 2013

How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine, a TED talk by Chris Milk, founder of VRSE (now Within), March 2015

Jenna Pirog on Virtual Reality in "The Displaced," by Wade Roush, Nieman Storyboard


See Also

The Limits of Empathy, a salient essay by Rose Eveleth, producer of the (awesome) podcast Flash Forward


Elsewhere at Hub & Spoke

Drowned at Sea — Hi-Phi Nation Season 2, Episode 3

Mission: Mona Lisa — The Lonely Palette Episode 25

Enlightened Cynicism — Ministry of Ideas Episode 10



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