The myth of the “empathy machine”

Virtual reality management training is the latest development in the modern history of feeling better about capitalism.

Barry exists to be fired.

Over and over again, Barry pops into simulated existence with one purpose: Teach management trainees the best way to let employees go.

Barry is built to respond to your cues as you explain the situation that had led to his termination: Due to recent outbursts toward co-workers, Barry is no longer welcome at your company. The choice of available prewritten script options help you navigate this conversation, but not without danger. Speak too softly and Barry will seize on your weakness and create an outburst; respond aggressively and Barry will break down crying.

Barry is a “Virtual Human” offered by Talespin, a company that provides workforce training through virtual reality simulation. The company received increased exposure after a recent MIT Technology Review article about Barry made the rounds on the internet. It’s part of a growing trend of virtual reality being used as a training tool for companies like Walmart and the NFL, as well as police departments looking for ways to help prepare officers for high-stress situations like domestic violence calls and active shooter events.

Fire this man. Repeatedly.

Fire this man. Repeatedly.

“Leadership skills represent the biggest gap between employer expectations and today’s workforce,” a video on Talespin’s website explains. “But as humans, our capacity for these skills is not set in stone.”

It's a sort of dialectical synthesis between George Clooney and Anna Kendrick’s characters in the movie Up In The Air — technology is a powerful tool, but it's that human touch when you're firing someone that really makes the difference. Barry exists to help you avoid making any major blunders, but primarily he exists to practice seeming like you care.

Emerging media forms, throughout their history, have long been theorized as extending the human ability to imagine or connect with the inner life of another being. The word “empathy” itself has roots in aesthetic philosophy as a translation of the German “Einfühlung” or “feeling into” — describing the process of projecting our own emotional sense into external objects, including works of art like sculpture and painting.

And this theorizing about the nature of empathy often comes alongside visions of new media, particularly virtual reality, as inherently liberatory — the idea being that the act of embodying the experience of others has transformative potential.

The now-infamous term “empathy machine,” coined by Roger Ebert to describe the medium of film, caught on as a way to describe virtual reality after a 2015 TED talk from filmmaker Chris Milk.

In the talk, Milk describes his history creating experiences that ask viewers to go past the “window” on the world provided by older media like film. With virtual reality, Milk says, one can step “through the window” and truly become a part of the world being represented.

This model of virtual reality as empathy machine has often come under scrutiny, with critics citing the limits of simulation to communicate the correct idea of what others want or need — for example, one 2014 study that asked participants to simulate blindness showed that participants tended to imagine what it would be like for them to suddenly become blind, rather than what it would be like to live as a blind person after a period of adaptation.

It’s also worth challenging our assumptions that embodying the perspective of others has the transformative powers needed to challenge systemic ills. At one point in the “empathy machine” TED Talk, Milk describes showing a VR documentary film about a Syrian refugee camp to attendees of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“These are people who might not otherwise be sitting in a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan,” Milk says, referring to the summit’s roster of the world’s global and political elite. “But in January, one afternoon in Switzerland, they suddenly all found themselves there.”

We are simply to accept as true that a more empathetic managerial class would provide substantively different outcomes than those we see today.

The screen cuts to a photo of a man, dressed in a suit, wearing a virtual reality headset. He has a slight smile on his face as he looks out into an unseen horizon which we cannot share with him.

The power of this moment, this image of a presumably wealthy and influential man extending empathy toward a Syrian refugee, is enough to provoke applause from the audience. And Milk portrays the event as a success, saying that the Davos leaders were “affected” by the film.

But “affected” how, and towards taking what action? There is little mention of why the subjects of the film or the six million other Syrians are unable to safely inhabit their homeland, nor how it has come to pass that this particular group of wealthy people meeting in Switzerland are in a position to determine the future of entire countries — not to mention how they, in many cases, materially benefit from Syria’s destabilization. The smile could just as easily be that of a man who sees an opportunity for gain.

We are simply to accept as true that a more empathetic managerial class, one more in touch with their capacity to feel their way into the lives of others, would provide substantively different outcomes than those we see today.

This capacity to understand and manage one’s emotions, as well as to recognize and influence the emotions of others, is increasingly understood as a function of what some refer to as “emotional intelligence.” The term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, which posited that “EQ,” as it is sometimes called, has the power to transform the effectiveness of organizations and, indeed, make the world a kinder and gentler place.

The hot new skill of 21st century employment, emotional intelligence has become near-ubiquitous in management training circles, with videos and articles extolling its importance popping up in publications like the Harvard Business Review.

The concept itself has roots in the social sciences of the later half of the 20th century, which sought to evaluate specific and measurable personality traits as a determining factor behind human behavior and success. Though Goleman drew upon this body of research, he cited emotional intelligence less as an empirical descriptive framework than as “the link between sentiment, character, and moral instincts.”

In the 21st century, being an empathetic manager is simply what the market demands.

Rather than attempt to simply explain the world, Goleman’s book and the surrounding emotional intelligence discourse purport to build a better society — indeed one where emotional intelligence and the technologies that center it have the power to dissolve the rigid hierarchies of industrial capitalism.

In her 1988 book In The Age of the Smart Machine, Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff argued that an “informated” economy has the power to challenge systems of hierarchy based on obedience and control. Under a data-based labor system, the need for deferential employees who follow directions to the tee is replaced with “the need to manage the psychological relationship between the worker and the data interface.” In the 21st century, being an empathetic manager is simply what the market demands.

In this defense of the new emotionally intelligent manager of the future, Zuboff and Goleman called little attention to the material relations between workers and capital or how they had changed in actual terms since 1980 — by most measures with the working class experiencing a massive transfer of wealth out of their hands and into the top one percent. Rather, they chose to focus on the way these shifting relations make themselves felt by workers and managers.

In the calls for greater emotional intelligence as the answer to our economic situation, there is a core assumption that the harm to workers under capitalism comes not from a system which denies labor access to the value it creates, but fundamentally from the forms of affect that this system embodies. Change the affect, and not only will you resolve this harm, but — and perhaps more importantly — your institution will be more effective as a result. Workers might still be exploited, but they can feel better about it.

This is not to say that empathy and emotional regulation are unimportant traits or that everybody should walk around being mean to each other all the time. But the use of emotional intelligence as a skill to gain higher levels of productivity out of a workforce indicates that an “empathy machine” may be a far more ideologically neutral tool then we care to admit.

If you had access to the Talespin demo, you could theoretically fire Barry as many times as you wanted. Reset the software to its initial conditions and there he will be, still employed and nervous to be sitting in the boss’ office.

Firing Barry may be the right decision — he did call a female co-worker a “whiner,” for one. But your job in the simulation isn’t to make that call. Letting him go is the right thing for the company; it’s already been programmed into the logic of the software. It’s in everyone’s best interest, including Barry’s, that Barry comes to terms with his dismissal.

If you succeed in the task, your training will be complete, and you’ll have the soft skills needed for modern corporate leadership — the difficult work of managing the emotions of yourself and others.

It’s probably best not to ask if there is a simulation showing you how to fire the person who was too soft on Barry.

Sam Heft-Luthy is a product manager and writer living in San Francisco.