SXSW diary: Reality and empathy

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The footloose globalists are less confident of their position as vanguards of the future, and empathy has been suggested to heal societal divides, writes the director of trend forecasting at J. Walter Thompson.

It may surprise the readers of Campaign, but one of my most memorable moments at SXSW Interactive, a festival known for bleeding-edge technology and countercultural cool, was a conversation about bullying with a school principal from Western Michigan. Part of an exercise in empathy, the conversation was a reminder about what that word really means, and how tech—and advertising—could stand to think about it from a broader point of view.

The conversation happened at a session hosted by Refinery29 and the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab, where moderators had asked us to pose the same question to our neighbors five times in a row: "Think about a time you were bullied. What do you wish someone would have done to help?"

The event was billed as a "collaborative design fiction session" and an introduction to the Empathy Lab, a partnership between Refinery29 and Columbia. The SXSW listing announced that we would "prototype solutions for the activation of empathy as an agent of social change in the production of new media types, such as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, the Internet of Things, and Artificial Intelligence."

This year, the footloose globalists at SXSW are a bit less confident of their position as vanguards of the future, and an increase in empathy has been suggested as one way to heal societal divides. I’ve heard a lot of spirited discussions about VR, specifically, as an "empathy engine"—unique in its ability to position the viewer in another person’s shoes, according to proponents of the idea. I was curious to see what Refinery29 and Columbia might do with this.

In reality, the interaction I had with my neighbor didn’t involve technology any more advanced than pen and paper. But the activity forced us to listen, and get personal in a hurry. I talked about my experience as an effeminate, awkward boy on a middle school basketball team, and my neighbor shared his story of growing up with dyslexia. Already, a non-superficial interaction with a stranger felt like progress of a sort.

Cyberbullying and "trolling" was another theme that came up repeatedly in Austin. The pop star Kesha talked about the need for women to "reclaim the internet," sharing stories about how hateful online comments fueled an eating disorder that left her on the verge of having a stroke. "Criticism online used to tear me up. Then I realized you can't make people you don't know your higher power," she said. "I’m happiest when I’m present in my real life, not concerned with my online life."

While empathy was touted here and throughout the festival as a panacea for problems both personal and political, at least some SXSW attendees weren’t buying it. Ashley Baccus-Clark, a speculative neuroscientist and member of the Hyphen-Labs collective of women of color working at the intersection of creativity and technology, rejects the "empathy" label when it comes to her VR work.

At SXSW, Hyphen-Labs was showing NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, a VR piece that immerses viewers into a futuristic beauty salon, where they are implanted with mind-expanding electrodes. After I saw the piece, Baccus-Clark told me she all the talk of "empathy" in VR actually distracts from the story and the people telling it.

"VR is really more of a mindfulness tool," she said. "In this experience, we don’t want you to feel empathy for our characters, we want to tell you a story from the point of view of a black woman. While you’re there, you’re mindful of your surroundings, your experiences, and the story that you’re being told."

VR does offer exciting new possibilities for storytelling, and maybe also for increasing empathy—one panel on VR by queer creators suggested exciting ways to use the medium to explore identity, for example. But it isn’t inherently a medium that fosters empathy between different groups, any more than social media is. People working in VR shouldn’t be required to create empathy, but if they want to, they’ll have to be deliberate about it.

I was reminded of the ongoing conversation about empathy in the technology space in general. A New Yorker piece by Om Malik published in November 2016 alleged that "Silicon Valley has an empathy vacuum." Noting the example of a Facebook "Year in Review" video that featured photographs of a user’s deceased daughter, Malik wrote that, "The lack of empathy in technology design doesn’t exist because the people who write algorithms are heartless but perhaps because they lack the texture of reality outside the technology bubble."

To be sure, plenty of founders at SXSW voiced tone-deaf complaints on social media about the unavailability of Uber and Lyft in Austin this year. But overall, it seemed to me that the conversation had begun shifting away from cheerleading for the technology industry, and more toward discussing the reality of tech’s social impact—sometimes even outside the bubble. If I, personally, seemed to have fewer "wow" moments around the tech itself this year than in the past, maybe that was part of the point.

So what should creative agencies do about this? Maybe when it comes to emerging tech, we should focus less on impressing consumers with cool new tricks, and more on how we can use AI, VR, AR and all the other acronyms to reveal genuine human connections—without assuming that you can strap a VR headset on someone and, voilà, empathy. If so, hopefully we’ll create something more memorable than the average buzzword-packed panel in Austin this week.

—Shepherd Laughlin is the director of trend forecasting at J. Walter Thompson. 

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