Oculus/Facebook & VR for Good

Tom Nickel
11 min readAug 26, 2018

The leading social network of all-time is finding life as a super power a bit trickier these days. Being held accountable for geopolitical consequences probably wasn’t in the boss’ initial game plan. That’s what he told Congress anyway

ZUCKERBERG: We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake. And I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.

To the question: What-Are-You-Going-To-Do-About-It, the answer so far has been more Facebook, new and improved, wrinkle-free.

ZUCKERBERG: It’s not enough to just connect people. We have to make sure that those connections are positive.

We have to make sure; he actually said, “make sure.” That’s insane. That’s like the world’s most helicopterish parent making sure that harm never comes to their children, only positive experiences. Good luck with that. No, actually, bad luck with that. It’s not the way to raise a healthy child or a healthy world; plus, Facebook is not our parent despite how the CEO might feel.

The ‘VR for Good’ Initiative

Cute title, but let’s also be sure to remind ourselves how the road to Hell is paved. Through Oculus, Facebook is doing more than just ‘making sure’ we experience no negativity — they are producing content for a new form of immersive media that is intended to be actively Good, not just Badness prevention.

Yesterday (the late August timing seems a bit strange to me, but Father Knows Best!), Oculus/Facebook launched VR for Good 3.0, (their way of saying ‘it’s the third year,’) with three new VR titles clearly meant to do Good.

I have no idea if these VR Experences will do Good or not. No one possibly could, no matter how much they assert in advance that Goodness (undefined) is the explicit intention. Maybe over time, if lots of people experience the Experiences and find one or more of them to be Good for them in ways they can describe so other people can appreciate why it was Good — then, maybe, we can say, those were Good, at least for some people.

Meanwhile, I believe we should adopt a humbler attitude. Acknowledge that (a) VR is a brand-new medium in the mass culture, with potential impacts we barely understand, and (b) even for media we know well, it is never obvious what content is Good and for whom. Especially since we are deeply divided over what Good is in the first place.

What to Review?

If I tried to evaluate these VR Experiences in terms of their claims of Goodness, and then went on to claim that my evauation is universally, or at least broadly, valid because I’m being “objective,” that wouldn’t be very humble. Instead I will just describe my reactions. If I am critical, that does not mean I am criticising the protagonists or that I expect anyone else to agree with me unless they do.

I feel that I need to state the limits of who I am speaking for in this Review very clearly, because the content of the three pieces is potentially divisive. They focus, not accidentally, on some of the hottest hot-button issues in US culture today — transgender peoples’ rights, non-binary gender traditions, and race-based hate organizations.

When Facebook says they are doing Good by putting a VR Experience into the mass culture about joining and then leaving a white race supremacy group, and someone then attacks it in a Review — the Reviewer could easily be seen as pro-white supremacy or anti-anti-racist. Fortunately, I will not be attacking it. For me, it was an excellent use of VR and I’m going to describe why. But before I do, once again, I have no idea if it will do Good.

What It Was Like For Me: “Authentically Us”

from www.authenticallyus.com

“Authentically Us” is a series of VR pieces featuring transgender individuals. “Authentically Us: She Flies By Her Own Wings” doesn’t show us transgender Air Force Veteran Shannon Scott — it allows us to be present with her as she testifies in Washington, DC against the ban on transgender people serving in the US military. We are by her side walking down the marble corridors of Congress, and seated with her as she speaks about love of country and commitment to service.

I was particularly struck by her reference to Not Leaving Comrades Behind as the driving force behind what she sees as a fight for freedom for all. Her personal strength, her ability to handle criticism, how comfortable she appears to be — I could feel those characteristics. I’ve always felt that Washington DC is designed to make us feel like Dorothy the Small and Meek. It didn’t work on Shannon Scott.

Would I have come away feeling the same after watching a documentary streamed on Youtube? First of all, I probably wouldn’t have watched it. There’s a million documentaries on Youtube, why should I watch this one? But there aren’t a million VR Experiences related to being transgender, as far as I know. And of course the Facebook angle gets my attention. So I put on my Oculus Go and loaded it up.

There is a school of Bridging Gaps that claims hate for members of Other Groups is all abstract. It is not based on actually knowing any of those Other People and developing a substantive basis for hating them. Furthermore, once someone meets an actual Other Group member and hangs out some, things are no longer abstract and hate begins to diminish. Of course, it’s not that simple and it’s also not that easy to meet and hang out with Other Group members.

But if the dynamic really works that way, and sometimes it probably does, then plenty of people who have never actually met a trans person could begin breaking down the abstraction by hanging out with Shannon Scott for five minutes in VR. Because she holds and espouses traditional American values, more conservative people might find her the perfect first transgender individual for them to get to know a little.

Would a conservative person who has never met a trans person and holds a general opinion that the whole thing is just wrong or nuts or both actually immerse themselves in Shannon’s life of their own free will? I can’t answer that. It seems unlikely, but who knows?

from www.authenticallyus.com

Next I experienced “Authentically Us: We’re Still Here,” featuring Aiden Crawford, whose story is a larger narrative of non-binary gender role traditions across First Nations. The press coverage describes his “struggles to preserve and revive his heritage in a race against time.” I didn’t feel that at all.

Maybe he was at a disadvantage following Shannon Scott in my VR sequence. Her personality fills a room. His doesn’t, not for me anyway. I was supposed to be present with him, but he didn’t draw me in as a character.

I know that he is a real person and not just a character for me to share presence with, but that gets to the heart of VR-style presence. It is real. It has an effect. But sharing the sensory environment and feeling ‘there’ does not mean processing the experience through the same internal framework. There were some cool aerial shots of Boise, ID, where Aiden Crawford lives. My attention wandered off to the overview of Boise, which I’m sure Aiden doesn’t experience like I did, while he was narrating something I don’t even remember.

“Two-Spirit” is the cultural term for the gender fluidity that is central to who Aiden Crawford is and what he wants to share with others. I heard him talk about the idea but I didn’t feel it being expressed in activity I guess. It probably was and I just missed it. Personally, I would have gotten more out of reading a good article about the “Two-Spirit” tradition.

“Meeting a Monster”

from www.vbprofiles.com

The “Authentically Us” series is presented documentary-style, starring transgender people. “Meeting a Monster,” about a young woman’s experience as a member of a White Supremacy group, is a scripted drama. It uses actors and theatrical sets. I loved it.

It is a little misleading to say it is about White Supremacy groups. What the VR experience does extremely well, in my opinion, was to help me feel why the young woman joined and later, how her whole mind set changed. There is very little about the group itself, just getting in and getting out.

I understand that people join groups of all kinds at least in part because they want to belong. I know I do. There are groups for everything from Foot Fetishists to Lighthouse Lovers. As the US moves from a predominantly white nation to a more multi-ethnic mix, inevitably some white people don’t like the change and will join groups with other white people who also don’t. Why? Why didn’t she just join the chess club?

The VR Experience of the set and settings of young Angela King’s life make it clear that chess club, or any club, wasn’t an option. There wasn’t anything for her to join that we could see, meaning that she couldn’t see anything.

I was in her school, or a set made to express the reality of her school, and I could see there were no activities and not much learning. What I saw was kids who were obviously scared, and bullying. I was sitting right next to the Angela King character, blank look on her face, and then I saw someone push her out of her chair and I saw why she did i.

After a few seconds of fear and surprise, I saw something different come over the character’s face, like, ‘that’s it, what do I have to lose?’ She got up and pushed back.

A little group of punk-looking white kids notices. I was there when they started hanging out with her. She was cautious at first, but I hadn’t seen her being happy with other people before. She started dressing like them. These are all concrete activities and visible changes that we can feel in a context Angela King wasn’t aware of — her recruitment.

I also get Leaving much better. She didn’t leave the group in her own mind when she went to prison for assaulting a Jewish guy. It took much longer. It took hours and hours of playing cribbage with her fellow, mostly black, inmates, but it happened. I was there.

The Prison Rec Room was a great set, a totally dismal place to be. It didn’t look to me like the black female inmates especially wanted to de-program the white supremacist girl. They just wanted more people to play cribbage because cribbage kills time. Why they would start hanging out with her felt natural and believable.

Doing Good

Google went at it from the other direction with their famous, “Do No Evil,” which goes back to 2004 or earlier. When the new holding company was

formed in 2015, they flipped the official Code of Conduct, which was stated as “Do the Right Thing” for Alphabet, and finally in 2018, for Google itself.

Google is now said to be developing a censored search engine with the Chinese government as the price for doing business there. The issues involved in this no-longer secret project are so complex it is hard to imagine that any one human being could grasp the totality. It takes AI, which, incidentally, is the ethically murkiest area of all in the Google-China romance.

Google is not Facebook. Facebook wants in on China too but they are not permitted. The company nevertheless opened a subsidiary in Shanghai, which the government shut down after one day.

The more Facebook and Google and Apple and all of them wrap themselves up in Good, the more harm they do by not speaking clearly, directly and truthfully. This tendency to claim the ethically high ground while participating in efforts around the world to restrict free speech, for example, is inconsistent unless you reject free speech as a core principle.

I prefer calling things what they are as opposed to what we want to convince other people is true. I wouldn’t call the “Authentically Us” series an Initiative for Good. I would just call it a series of VR Experiences that let you feel like you are in the presence of a transgender person.

But this isn’t an article about PR and Marketing for hi-tech giants. It’s about VR and the content now starting to roll out. Except that VR and the content now starting to roll out is PR and Marketing for hi-tech giants. Facebook paid $3 billion for Oculus, not a mere $2 billion as initially reported. I’m sure there’s a way to calculate the level of revenue needed to turn $3b into a positive ROI, but when we realize We are the objects being sold to hit those sales targets it should make us think twice whenever Facebook says, “VR Initiative for Good.”

I mean, of course we should; we always should. But most of our decisions and behavior are not the result of thinking at all, not twice and not even once. Unconscious dynamics produce our reactions which we tell ourselves milliseconds later we just decided. I don’t go all the way to Robert Sopolsky’s position that we have no free will, but I think our free will (by which we usually mean our conscious intentional mental presence) is just one of multiple factors that lead to our behavior, and it’s not the main one.

VR will tickle those unconscious dynamics like nothing ever before. When we put on a VR headset, we are essentially saying, “Manipulate me!” I’d sure like to be able to trust that I will be manipulated as stated in the product information. If that information says, “you will feel like you are in the presence of a transgender person,” I sort of know what that means and can make a decent judgment about doing it or not. If the information suggests that the VR Experience is designed to do good, I’m not sure what that means and so I probably shouldn’t do it. Except I did.

Read all my VR articles here

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos