Why VR Social Activism?

Last week I visited the Jewish Museum with my VR tutorial. There was a VR demo on display, showcasing the interior of a room the famous interior designer Pierre Chareau, which was wonderfully done, with actual furniture from the original room surrounding you.

What I was most interested in, however, was Walter Benjamin’s display on the societal repercussions of imagery and photography. Although it only consisted of four photographs of cameras pointing in varied directions and two mirrors facing each other, it held itself up with a whimsically formatted text on social media, photography, and their implications in social evolution. For example, Benjamin  grounded his piece in the theory that, “the entanglement of social media activism with the global occupy movement creates the conditions for becoming a mechanic cockroach.” Pretty provocative, huh? It makes me think of Chris Milk’s use of VR as an empathy machine to sway UN policymakers to address the needs of Syrian refugees. But, above all, it points to a deeper point about technology in general.

I want to frame Benjamin’s definition of “mechanic cockroach” as a mechanized creature that gives purpose to things that are decaying by consuming them. Its mechanical nature is what sustains it, so in our case, our devices, social media, VR, the Internet, etc. So, according to Benjamin, social media (and for my purposes, VR and all other technology), creates conditions for us to capture the decaying and forgotten things at the margins of our world (Syrian refugee crisis, famine in Somalia) and turn them into consumable content for those who are also “mechanical cockroaches.” The act of consumption keeps these issues relevant and immediate.

This leads me to the question… what could we keep alive with VR? I immediately think of Black Mirror’s “San Junipero“, but let’s keep this within the near future. We already see a movement in social media to bring light to forgotten issues, but why is it our tendency to use technology to sustain things that are moribund? Benjamin, in his exhibit, raises a stark point about the potentially negative implication of this behavior, viewing “the social web as something that actually stops people from real actions.” I beg to differ. Just look at the Facebook page for Humans of New York. Brandon Stanton has changed countless lives with his images. Or, just recently, the social media campaign to get food and water to a famine-struck region in Somalia. I think that our tendency to use these forms of technology to address marginal issues is our inevitable projection of our human empathy onto the things we create. Although Benjamin raises some sobering points about social media, the human race will never change in its unifying trait of empathy.

Artist’s name: Walter Benjamin

Bio: He was a German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic. He combined elements of Jewish mysticism, romanticism, western marxism, and German idealism. His primary contributions were to aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and historical materialism.  Benjamin’s primary school was the Frankfurt School.

Title of artwork: The Arcades

Description: Four photographs and two mirrors accompanied by framed essays on cultural criticism.

Some cool stuff on VR:

This awesome guy I met last night a VR meet up made this.

VR in theaters!

Mixed reality pets short film.


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