I was really happy to see a reading discussing the Machine to be Another, as I had learned of the Machine a long time ago and been very fascinated by the project and the questions it raises.
I was equally happy to read Ainsley Sutherland's critical response to claims that The Machine, and virtual reality in general, will promote social and political change by generating unprecedented experiences of empathy. Her deconstruction of the assumptions about empathy is spot-on. What do we mean by "empathy"? Is it the immediate, visceral reaction? Is it a conceptual process of imagining another persons perspective? How exactly does VR generate either of these forms of empathy better than film, or some other medium?
(I think it's especially relevant to make comparisons to film, which has also been touted by cultural theorists as particularly effective at inducing empathy. Film is a much more mature medium - film-specific techniques for evoking intense emotional response have been refined over several generations. Whereas, VR is new - so I do not believe that we should tout its benefits for empathy or other emotional response until we have worked out the best way to produce these responses using VR.)
And what about Bertolt Brecht's argument that empathy enables complacency, and that instead alienation is needed in order to induce change in individual perspective - which makes social change possible? While I can imagine empathy might in some cases break down the ways we see people as Other, the rhetoric around empathy and VR reeks of techno-utopianism to me.
I also appreciated that Sutherland touched on the relationship between the performer and the viewer in the Machine to be Another. This relationship, the live performance with synchronous movement, distinguishes the Machine from other VR works and is an fundamental component of the procedure. I think that a lot more could be said about this relationship, and the nature of the piece as a participatory performance. Sutherland briefly compares the Machine to "happenings" and Theater of the Oppressed but I would go further to place the Machine firmly in this tradition of participatory performance art, along with Situationism and the like. What these traditions reveal is how the social context of entering into the Machine and the act of synchronous movement between performer and viewer are integral to the experience. There is a long tradition of artworks in which participants exit regular social scripts into such a "magic circle," and engage in intimate acts of collaboration. If we ignore this tradition, we risk attributing to the technology aspects of the experience that are more rightly attributed to the social and interpersonal structure of the piece.
I also think that much more could be said about the Machine as an "embodiment system," and that it is embodiment, not empathy, where the unique power of the Machine lies. To view the world through another's eyes, with synchronized tactile sensations - a living, present other, not a 360 video from another's point of view - is a unique possibility that VR allows, and the Machine breaks new ground in experimenting with this setup. Attempts to create empathy are only one way of using this form of embodiment. But the embodiment itself is more fundamental, and opens uncharted phenomenological territory. I'm much more interested in what the Machine or similar processes can tell us about our perceptions of embodiment and of the self, than in any ideals of perfect empathy.