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Forced Empathy?

Ok hold on guys…I have got to talk about this thing I just found.

This morning, I read an article on NPR news called Sensory Fiction: Books That Let You Feel What the Characters Do, which announces a new invention that…

By combining networked sensors and actuators, the wearable can change lighting, sound, temperature, chest tightness and even heart rate of the reader to match what the main character in the book is going through.

And it looks like this:

From NPR’s website.

Now, sometimes I can feel and sound like an eighty-year-old the way I get scared by new technology. I think I went on an existential tirade once back when those commercials for Google Glass came out. However, this one struck a chord with me – which I felt somewhat appropriate to post here – because this technology is attempting to enhance the experience of empathy. I think it was this paragraph of the article that grabbed me most of all:

The engineers tested out their device with The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree. In the story, the protagonist swings from deep love to ultimate despair and experiences both Barcelona sunshine and the captivity of a dark, damp cellar. “You feel this story in your gut — it is an amazing example of the power of fiction to make us feel and empathize with the protagonist,” Hope says. “Because our imaginations and emotions were so strongly moved by this story, we wondered how we could heighten that experience.”

As theatre artists, we wheel-and-deal in empathy. What we sell is the basic human experience of seeing oneself in another person. We stress the power of the imagination, though maybe even less so than the writers of novels, since their audience doesn’t have the luxury of seeing a living, breathing character in front of them. Is imagination so lacking nowadays that we feel the need to enhance it? It is maybe not lacking, but too tempting of an idea for science to try and futz with to see if they can somehow improve it? This, to me, is one of those new technologies that I recoil at just a bit because it seems like more and more we are leaning the human experience very heavily on technology. NPR editor Ellen McDonnell voiced one of her concerns in the article by saying “If these device things are helping ‘put you there,’ it just means the writing won’t have to be as good.” Will technologically eventually infringe on the responsibility of artists to be mindful and masterful in their craft? If this takes off – although right now it’s hard to imagine it taking off in any big way – will it become too much of an effort to generate our own empathy? Will we rely on mood lighting and responsive chest gadgets to give us an immersing experience?

Granted, art has been using technology for years. We invented surround sound and bass amplifiers to get a better sense of being in the middle of an action-movie gunfight. We invented HD to see the vivid color in nature shows more clearly. Heck, even theatre brought in microphones to ensure the audience could hear everything rather than relying on the actors to have good projection. Maybe I’m old-fashioned and skittish, but to me this “sensory fiction” technology goes a little beyond enhancing the experience in the way it almost promises to put you in the experience itself. Even though the protagonist of the book is actually experiencing the dank cellar or the excitement of a new love, the technology promises that you, the reader, will feel those things. It’s like a weird, roundabout second person narrative. Is it even empathy anymore when the book is physically forcing you to feel what the protagonist is feeling? Where’s the true, human empathy in that?

I suppose my ultimate concern with these things boils down to this: when are we enhancing something to make it easier, and when are we attempting to replace an essential aspect of the human condition with something that can simply be bought in a store?

Okay. After all that, I should include a disclaimer from the article: “The prototype does work, but it won’t be manufactured anytime soon. The creation was only ‘meant to provoke discussion,’ Hope says. It was put together as part of a class in which designers read science fiction and make functional prototypes to explore the ideas in the books.” Though may I just add: aren’t a lot of science fiction novels about dystopian societies?


About oliviahaller

Olivia is a DC-based actor, playwright, dramaturg, and producer.

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