A couple of weeks ago Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (or someone from his PR team) thought it would be a good idea to promote their new virtual reality product by virtually visiting the flooded streets of Puerto Rico. So with a VR headset strapped to his face, people could see his cartoonish avatar smiling amid the human suffering of flooded streets 3000 miles away.
Unsurprisingly, their marketing stunt, intended to promote a “social” VR app called Facebook Spaces – backfired on social media when people saw the video and screenshots. The founder of Facebook was livestreaming the event in a tasteless, completely not-thought-through manner, using a humanitarian crisis for a marketing stunt. Of course, people got angry almost immediately.
When Zuckerberg apologized the next day, he clarified his intentions. “One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy,” he wrote. By cultivating empathy, VR “can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world”.
With VR, this humanitarianism can be quite explicit. Charities are already using the technology to coax dollars from prospective donors. At black-tie fundraisers in New York, attendees have used VR headsets to travel to destinations as distant as a Lebanese refugee camp and an Ethiopian village. And the United Nations has built its own VR app that teleports users to Syria, Liberia, Gaza and elsewhere, while encouraging them to donate money or time.
At a moment when Silicon Valley sorely needs good press, both to burnish its public image and to forestall a possible regulatory response, the myth of the empathy machine has an important role to play. It helps rehabilitate the idea that connectivity produces socially beneficial outcomes, and that Silicon Valley is an essentially humanitarian enterprise. Which is OK, except when specific campaigns to do so are not thought through.
Who would think there’s anything humanitarian about an avatar of a smiling billionaire among a population of relatively poor people experiencing the greatest suffering of their lives. There’s no style of animation that can be appropriate for this situation, either.
— The Verge (@verge) October 9, 2017
— Anil Dash (@anildash) October 10, 2017
Of course, realizing what they’d done, Zuckerberg apologized:
“Reading some of the comments,” he wrote, “I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”
He added that his goal was to show how VR can raise awareness to what’s happening across the world. But how is it possible that a human can be so cut off from human emotion, he doesn’t instantly recognize that this was a very bad idea? This is a serious problem to think about, and it’s a problem Zuckerberg needs to solve on his own before his stunts completely annihilate his public image.