The recent events in New Orleans have led me to once again ponder an idea I came up with a couple years ago. The concept is based on a simple truth — the lack of empathy for others allows humans to mistreat each other.
My idea is simple and is based on the concept of a
Anyway, I accept that even if we survive as a race for 100 more years, there will still be inequality in the world. Actually, there is every chance that it’ll be even more pronounced than it is today.
Well, what if every citizen were required, as part of their civic duties, to spend some time on a Unity machine. The Unity machine would be a massive network designed to take in and project the emotions of all humans (or chosen representatives) — at all times. A planetwide network of sensation.
The idea is simple. In order to receive all the benefits of citizenship, one must spend a certain amount of time per day or week experiencing the lives of others on the planet. Each family would have a machine that allowed them to do this, and when it came time to do one’s civic duty, he/she would just log in and be taken to wherever the system takes them.
The person would be almost completely emersed, using all of the senses, into the life of another human being on their planet. The system would choose what should be experienced, and by who, with the simple goal of enhancing the understanding between disparate groups.
Imagine a Doctor Michelson, a wealthy man living in an upscale neighborhood who spends most of his time planning lavish vacations and purchasing upgrades to his own cybernetic implants. A man of privilege and power. Upon logging in to serve his duty, he is transported completely to a small villiage in a third-world country. He’s instantly innundated with the putrid smell of rotting flesh and the pang of intense hunger. Sitting in his top of the line Unity machine interface, he nearly vomits on himself.
As vision sets in, he’s bombarded with a series of memories — almost like a near-death experience where one sees their life flash in front of them. He becomes aware that he’s a small boy, and that he hasn’t had a meal in days. The ache of some sort of injury to his leg becomes apparent, and almost instanly a flash of fear spikes into the doctor’s brain as he remembers running from a group of local thugs who in fact caused the injury.
The fear is real. The Unity machine quite efficiently ties into the parts of the brain that creates these emotions. It can create any sensation — lust, greed, elation, hate — all with stunning accuracy, and in fact the most popular gaming interfaces are based on the same exact technology.
But the doctor now can scarcely remember that he’s performing a civic duty; to him, he’s basically in this forgotten villiage. All he can think about is where to find some food, and how to keep those horrible men from stabbing him again. Tears are running down his face, and his heartrate is almost twice what it ever reaches when working in his own personal gym.
As he settles down and starts to aclimate to the tearing feeling of true hunger, he suddenly realizes that there isn’t much reason to run in the first place. A loss hits him that he’s never even fathomed. Sobs rack his body as he sits in the Unity machine. Images remind him of what happened — a rape, a murder, and more running. The boy’s mother was killed in front of him and he was taken as a slave — a position he’s currently fleeing from. Doctor Michelson can do little more than cry as he struggles to deal with the depth of pain.
Suddenly, he’s jarred by a bright light and the suffering begins to fade. He glances around and the gentle restraints free him from his Unity machine harness. He looks around the room and is overwhelmed with another emotion — utter happiness. He remembers that he hasn’t been injured. He isn’t being chased. All these things in the room — the trophies, the bookshelves, the window overlooking the water — they’re all his. His Mother is not dead. He remembers now that he simply logged his time on the machine, and that everything is ok now.
Only everything is not ok. That was not a simulation. He was experiencing someone elses emotion capture — a real person’s experiences. Suddenly Doctor Michelson’s world outlook is a bit different, and his next meeting with his broker is going to be quite the deviation from the norm. Instead of hoarding wealth, he’s going to start seriously thinking about how some of his money can help others. A simple thought has struck him — these are real people.
Elsewhere in the world, a Christian highway mainanance person named Bob logs in to serve his time. Instead of being subjected to pain, he feels the love of a Muslim man as he looks down at his newborn child. He sees his work as a local construction worker, sees him playing a board game with is wife and older children. The Unity machine floods him with a familiar, overwhelming sentiment — “I hope I can provide for this familiy.” He realizes that this is the same feeling he’s dealing with every day. Why am I being taught to hate this man? What’s so different about him? Nothing.
The goal of the Unity machine is very simple — to help people realize that those sharing the earth are the same as them. The easiest way to do this is by allowing them to experience their emotions, both positive and negative. The system’s algorithm for what to show to who is key. Imagine the impact, though, of showing Congresspeople the beauty of the people they’re about to authorize war against. Would they be as quick to sign the required paperwork authorizing bombs to be dropped?
Oh, and prison? Prison would be incarceration combined with specialized Unity programs — programs tailored around the offense. You’re convicted of rape? Let’s show you what it’s like for a victim. Theft? Let me show you what loss looks like. By the end of the programs you’ll have people who understand the reprocussions of their actions and are less likely to take those actions again, rather than someone who just doesn’t want to go back to prison.
This wouldn’t be a cure-all, of course. This has to be combined with a great many other factors — most of all education — in order to make the world a better place. I just think that it’s an interesting idea on how to promote the concept of “we” and “us” on a human level rather than on the smaller scale. That’s the problem with humans — we clump off into these little mini-cults. We all become elitists — even those with very little power. We make the hard distinction between us and them, and that distinction is what justifies us treating others poorly.
Only when we can truly see the other inhabitants of the planet as an extension of ourselves will we be able to move forward as a civilization, and I think technology such as the Unity machine can help us in acheive this goal.:
Edit: This is the first draft of this concept; it’s rough and ugly. If you have any ideas on how I can make it more eloquent or impactful, do let me know.
Edit: I am well aware of the many downsides to an invasive system such as this. Here are a few of them:
- Who would control who gets what emotions?
- How would you prevent misuse of the sensors?
- How would the sensors be distributed to everyone?
- Why would the powerful not be able to evade service the way they evade taxes?
- How would one determine what was private and what wasn’t?
There are many, many more. The thought assumes a sufficiently advanced society that can handle many of the pitfalls that would make such a system utterly dangerous in our current environment. Remember though, it was just a thought — it’s not something I think should be built or implemented. One could make the argument, in fact, that any society that could ethically weild such power would already be able to handle the empathy issue in other ways.
I just thought it was an interesting concept — having to partake in the experiences of others as a civic duty in order to nurture empathy.