As I sit in the comfort of my own bed at home, I think about the self I was before I left and the self I am now. It’s nice to leave my survivalist mindset and reflect. To make another home in another country is quite difficult, and I’m not sure if I can say that Israel is a country I’d want to visit again. I went to Israel with naive optimism, full of expectation that I would learn, grow, and enjoy travel. I did not realize how difficult the experience would be, but in hindsight, those difficulties were precisely why my experience in Israel was so enriching.
Few months before I arrived to IDC with interest in virtual reality, I had watched a TED Talk on how VR was being termed the new empathy machine. The speaker explained the way VR could become a way to embody people into other characters’ shoes and to foster empathy towards global and local issues. I imagined VR as a machine that could truly actualize the famous quote from To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Though I had started out with such an optimistic focus on the research, I actually ended up writing more about how VR could potentially de-empathize users and manipulate human behavior. I had initially thought of VR as a new form of media storytelling that could expand one’s understanding of the world through empathy, but such potential also comes with an increased potential for negative, coercive purposes. Empathy and the act of understanding are tricky ideas, with virtual reality blurring the line between real persuasion and brainwashing. In a way, I’ve become more cynical about the potentials of this technology, but that does not mean I’ve lost hope in it. The study of technology ethics is critical not to just speculate dystopian scenarios, but to understand the duality of many technological innovations. Especially in VR, ethics explain the nuances behind the commercialized optimism that corporations promote to consumers. Some of the questions I explored in VR were: 1) What are the long-term psychological effects of being embodied in VR? 2) Could VR create false, “virtual” memories? 3) How do you represent race and identity if you can “become” another ethnicity in VR? To understand the ethical implications can help us use our technology wisely without outright being closed off and conservative about it. I strive to find the balance between critical thinking and hope and to find a way we could wisely use the technology without undermining the core humanity within us.
Being in Israel also forced me to think more about my privilege of being a Penn student and the way I approach the wonder of travel. Being a low-income student who did not want to ask parents for money, I may have pushed my limits a bit too much on how survivalist I could become in a foreign country. While I had gained a lot of life skills doing that, I also sacrificed part of my sanity to maintain it. It’s a paradox that I was living in – to have this opportunity to intern and travel a foreign country while simultaneously being unable to afford to be a tourist like everyone else. That in-between space I inhabited gave me a new perspective on how I should travel and also why I travel. Travel is never just about consuming visual landscapes; the cliche definition is to learn different cultures, but really, it is more about exploring our own selves and our own ways of adaptation and confrontation of how we approach uncertainty and the unknown. Confronting my own shyness while still being ambitious about what I loved was something I had to continuously mediate during my travels. I traveled on my own a lot without the usual group of Penn students, and that solitude actually helped me make more friends. It’s weird to say that solitude can lead to more relationships, but that’s exactly what happened to me — solitude fostered a critical inner strength to be more open about myself and the stories all around me. I will always remember the stories I heard from my Russian-Canadian landlady, the Czech-Israeli sous-chef who took me on a culinary tour, the German chemist who I shared beer with, and all these people who have changed my life in subtle, but rooted ways.
IDC Herzliya, Israel