Compassion and empathy are vital as strategies for achieving anything of value in the future; they also constitute of and in themselves the reason why the future is worthwhile. The question is, Can you ever do anything to influence someone’s level of empathy and compassion? I’m really not sure.

Image courtesy of Jaron Lanier

One of the interesting things about Buddhism is the notion that certain types of practice, which are on the face of them value neutral, can actually lead to the development of compassion. On a social level, it seems that media technologies, with their McLuhanesque properties, might very well be our collective “practice.”

What’s interesting about virtual reality, in this respect, is that it forces one to have a different sense of one’s place in an environment. For instance, when you watch a movie, the camera is like an ego, in that you’re always looking from an imposed perspective. When you’re in virtual reality, however, the only thing that identifies you as being in a particular part of the world is that your sensory motor loop is attached to that part of the world. So if the world happens to be set up so that your eyelids control the doors, then the doors feel like part of your body. In VR there’s a flexible definition of what your body is and what part of the world it isn’t. So if cameras are a metaphor for the ego, then virtual reality would seem to be something that suggests a pervasive kind of identity. You can’t suddenly turn into a bird in reality, for example, but in VR you can. What a person looks like from the outside in VR is a wave of creative change.

Our minds are potentially fully fluid, but we often think of them as not fluid because our bodies are not. What one would hope is that realizing how truly fluid everyone is would make it a little harder to have firm ideas about one’s enemies.

The experience of virtual reality forces you to notice your own experience of consciousness. In the physical world there’s a fuzzy boundary between the hypothetical objective environment and your way of interpreting it, but in VR the world that is presented to you is entirely a human artifact. By noticing the sharp-edged boundary of the objective world in VR, you also notice that there is something on the near side of that boundary.

Noticing consciousness is not as trivial a task as you might suppose. In fact, many people in computer science would argue that consciousness does not exist. The only reason to ever bring consciousness in as a consideration is because you experience it; it is otherwise superfluous. But once it’s experienced, you can’t throw it out, any more than a physicist could simplify his job by throwing out one of the forces of nature in order to have a unified theory. So in a sense, VR might serve as a prequel to Buddhism, exposing what must be lost.

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