Backlash grows against Zuckerberg stunt

Damp squib: It is “really flooded”, Zuckerberg said from the safety of his office. © Facebook

Could virtual reality make us nicer? Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has apologised for a "tasteless" VR video of him touring flooded Puerto Rican streets in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Yesterday, Facebook users slammed Mark Zuckerberg as “pathetic” and “deluded.” One said he “should be ashamed.” Why? Because he used virtual reality to “visit” hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

A video posted to his 97m followers showed cartoon versions of Zuckerberg and Facebook executive Rachel Franklin exploring the island’s ruined streets. The real Zuckerberg was safely on dry land in California, viewing the scene from a headset in Facebook’s $269m headquarters.

Many were appalled at his insensitivity. Whilst in front of a wrecked bridge, Zuckerberg’s grinning avatar declared how “magical” virtual reality was. He and Franklin later shared a high-five by a flooded street. Hurricane Maria killed 45 people on the island and officials described conditions as “apocalyptic”.

Zuckerberg apologised for the video, writing that he was ”sorry to anyone offended”. But he defended virtual reality because of its power to create “empathy”.

Virtual reality has been a dream of scientists for decades. In the 1950s Morton Heilig constructed the “sensorama”. Users would put their heads inside a large box which would stimulate sight, sound, smell, and touch, giving a “complete sensation of reality”. Heilig envisioned his machine training soldiers and factory workers.

Journalist Jennifer Alsever claims that modern advances have now made virtual reality the “ultimate empathy machine”. New headsets allow adults to see through the eyes of children; able-bodied individuals to experience disability; and people to explore far-away countries — all without leaving their own home.

For some, this breaking down of boundaries creates compassion. The 2015 film Clouds over Sidra, used virtual reality to show life from the perspective of a Syrian refugee. A fundraiser that exhibited the film raised $3.8 billion, 70% more than projected.

Zuckerberg’s Puerto Rico trip was partly an attempt to create empathy for those suffering. But for some it did more harm than good.

Will virtual reality change the world for the better?

Step into my shoes

“No, virtual reality is just virtual empathy,” argue some. Simply exploring the sights and sounds of a refugee camp or a disaster zone does not reflect the true horrors of losing your home. These experiences trick people into thinking they are doing good. In fact, absolutely nothing of substance is achieved.

“Virtual reality will connect us in wondrous ways,” counter others. Fundamentally, it shows us that there is more than one way of seeing the world. And this can only lead to greater understanding and greater compassion. Plus, because it is so immersive, our experiences will be far more profound than anything ever achieved by film or TV.

You Decide

  1. If you could use virtual reality to travel to any place in the world, where would it be?
  2. Should we use virtual reality to view disaster zones?

Activities

  1. Write down as many uses of virtual reality as you can in one minute. Compare with the class.
  2. Follow the link to The Verge piece in Become An expert. Use it to research the history of virtual reality. Which breakthrough do you think was the most important and why? Which early virtual reality machines would you most like to try out?

Some People Say...

“Virtual reality does nothing to increase our empathy.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There are currently over 600 virtual reality startups with an average valuation of $4.5m. We know that 11m virtual reality devices were sold in 2016. However, the majority of these were low cost smartphone viewers which hold phones close to the users’ eyes.
What do we not know?
We do not know if the virtual reality device market will grow in the future, and if so, to what extent. It has not been proved definitively whether virtual reality has the ability to increase empathy.

Word Watch

Avatar
An icon or a figure representing a particular person in a video game or simulation.
Hurricane Maria
Maria was a Category 5 hurricane which struck Puerto Rico on September 20th. It is the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, and the fourth major hurricane of the 2017 Atlantic storm season.
Morton Heilig
American scientist and engineer (1926 — 1997), often referred to as the “father of virtual reality”.
Disability
Researchers at the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab are conducting a long running study involving virtual reality and disability. In one study they found that seeing the world through the eyes of a colour-blind person, made participants more likely to assist partially sighted people.
Clouds over Sidra
The film was directed by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora. It was produced in partnership with the United Nations to draw attention to the Syrian refugee crisis.

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