Feature

World Heart: Teaching Offenders Empathy in a Networked World

by Christopher M. Wright

"We are all connected." These days, one hears constant reference to the notion that all human beings are in some fashion related and that what one person does inevitably affects other people around them. The idea has permeated pop culture in recent years, with novelists even making human ties tangible or visible in some way. In Stranger in a Strange Land, a Martian teaches humans to grok, which at first means only to understand one another, but which takes on richer dimensions as the book progresses. Carlos Castaneda made human ties visible to spiritual questers in his Journey to Ixtlan series. Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game, The Lost Boys) more recently gave human ties a basis in physics and used them for interstellar transport in one of his science fiction series.

There is another sense in which "we are all connected" has come true in recent years. Since the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s, instantaneous communication has been possible and wires connecting people to one another have spread like kudzu across the face of the planet. The telephone network and, more recently, the Internet (the convergence of telecom and computing) are further tangible, visible expressions of the ties between people. It is an increasingly networked world.

The observation is now commonplace that global computer networking has enabled the state-of-the-art in many fields to advance more quickly. Formerly, researchers were isolated and had to wait years for the work of others in their field to be available in published form. Now, with the Internet, researchers can communicate their results instantly to others whose minds are similarly engaged. Collaborative effort has to some extent displaced solitary pursuit. In this connection, the Internet has been called the World Brain.

But humans are connected not only through their intellects but also through their emotional ties. Completely overlooked has been the amazing potential of the Internet to facilitate emotional ties among people no matter where they happen to be physically located and, thus, to draw the human family closer together. Internet technologies can be deployed to favorably condition empathic response in those who have offended against community norms out of a lack of appreciation for the effects that their criminal behavior has on other people.

Technology is widely perceived as soulless and even as anti-human by some. But technology is only a tool and can be placed in the service of humane values. There is no reason the Internet cannot become the World Heart as well as the World Brain.

Empathy and Criminal Justice Theory
Thinking in the field of criminology has cycled around broad themes of punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation for centuries. The recent trend toward victims' rights is really just the latest variation on a very old theme. The primacy of the victim hearkens back to Saxon, England, where victims and offenders handled restitution privately among themselves. Called "restorative justice" today, the concept has spawned, among other things, Victim-Offender Rehabilitation Programs which bring offenders face-to-face with their victims, the end product being written restitution agreements. Many offenders find emotional release in being understood ("I wanted to let them know I am not a bad person. I just made a mistake."). Forgiveness, understanding, redemption, empathy, atonement, the opportunity to "make things right" - the emotional intensity of these programs for offenders demonstrates that emotions are in play in offender psychology. This raises the possibility that emotions can be used to restructure thinking and reduce criminal propensities. Some years back, a TV newsmagazine featured a woman who went around to prisons talking about what a crime did to her and her family. She had the prisoners in tears as they came to realize the extent of the harm they themselves had caused their own victims. Empathy is now taught in some prisons and grade schools. One school found that students eventually internalize empathy and learn to rein in their own behavior. In California prisons, victim affinity groups explore the effects of a participant's crime on the victim, the victim's family and the offender's own family. In this way, empathy is learned and self-control is reinforced.

One must make only modest claims for the benefits of teaching empathy to offenders. No single technique will reach every offender. Some will be deterred by punishment, and others will achieve self-control through moral instruction or the removal of cognitive distortions like exaggerated needs for immediate gratification. Nevertheless, some offenders will arrive at correct behavior through their emotional intelligence and, therefore, there is value in exploring new ways to encourage greater empathic response among them. Teaching offenders empathy might not change the world, but it will help.

Empathy and Interactive Networking
The Internet is a powerful medium. Its power lies in the ways it can allow people to interact. The Internet is an interactive medium, unlike today's TV or newspapers. It is the interactive nature of the Internet that opens new possibilities for teaching empathy to offenders. Reading a book is usually a solitary experience. Writing interactive fiction in real-time with other online users or participating in other online forums shifts the paradigm from solitary activity to collaboration. Successful collaboration requires consideration of others and their feelings, and thus may greater empathic response be born.

Recreational materials like science fiction paperbacks and music cassettes are the most popular items in prison collections. However, many offenders are also interested in improving their lives. Many seek transformational experiences, creative writing outlets, ways to remain connected to the larger world around them and new skills like computer literacy to ease their transition back into community life. Many have trouble reading. Information professionals have a golden opportunity to address all these needs with current and future networking technologies.

Prisoners receive visitors and get mail from the outside. Networking technologies can provide additional ties to the outside world and create a sense of community for those prisoners who would not dream of speaking up at a lecture or being brought face-to-face with their victims. Networking can also let prison librarians leverage their resources. Whatever is created in one location can be networked to other facilities via the Internet. The types of forums and multi-user domains available today and the virtual worlds of tomorrow can be disseminated instantly to other prisons around the world.

Networking Technologies for Offenders - Present and Future
The Present - Jurisdictions vary in the degree to which they currently use networking technologies in prison libraries. In Maryland, for example, the state is working to provide e-mail and the state information system ('Sailor') to its prison librarians. Because security is viewed as a manageable problem, some degree of Internet access for prisoners is envisioned for the future. In stark contrast, authorities in the federal system believe that sophisticated inmates will use the Internet to run criminal enterprises from prison and therefore have declared, once and for all, "no modems for prisoners." However, the availability of secure servers and firewall technology puts the federal authorities on the wrong side of history. The federal system may hold out for a time but will eventually follow Maryland's lead. The networking paradigm is unstoppable.

A number of networking technologies and applications that could be used in prison libraries to teach empathy or serve other valid purposes already exist:

The Future - Behold the future: networked virtual reality. Networked virtual reality is destined to play a prominent role in the future of mass computing because it is an extension of what may be called the "graphical revolution." Until recent times, computers were difficult to operate, required specialized knowledge of arcane keyboard commands and were the province of experts. It was not until the early 1980s that computers began to win a place in large numbers on the desktops of ordinary users. The creation of a mass market had to await the "graphical user interface," i.e., the point-&-click operating systems that made computers much easier to use. Ease of use is the cardinal principle that drives mass market adoption of new technologies. The graphical revolution continued in the mid-1990s when the Web, with its colorful graphics and point-&-click browser software, virtually eclipsed all of gopherspace and turned the Internet into a mass phenomenon.

The next step in the graphical revolution is networked virtual reality precisely because the same ingredients are at work - visualization and ease of use. Networked virtual reality will have numerous applications - some useful and some entertaining - and will require no specialized knowledge of computing to operate.

Virtual Reality is a term loosely applied to a set of developments ranging from enhanced computer graphics to the creation of entire imaginary worlds in which the computer user feels totally immersed. The ability to select any and all viewing positions places the user inside a computer-generated world that can be explored much like someone would move around a zoo or shopping mall in real life.

Although the line is somewhat blurred between enhanced computer graphics and virtual reality, it is said that the sense of total immersion and the ability to interact with features within the simulated environment are the distinguishing characteristics of virtual reality. Everyone has seen the clumsy head gear commonly associated with virtual reality, but avatars (on-screen user representations having human form), voice commands and head trackers can effectively allow users to feel as if they are inhabiting the computer-generated space without bulky helmets, body suits or data gloves, simply by viewing an ordinary screen. The three-dimensional visual effects can be enhanced by using stereoscopic glasses of various types already available.

Just a few years ago, the idea of a virtual reality Net was the stuff of science fiction. However, networked virtual environments will soon be upon us. Virtual space on the Internet is already in its infancy, characterized by static scenes and cartoon worlds. One can already visit sites on the Web featuring enhanced 3-D graphics generated with Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML). The important point to grasp is that the Internet is not standing still; it is continuously undergoing development and improvement. Next Generation Internet initiatives will bring increased bandwidth, distributed supercomputing and virtual reality to the desktop within the next 5 to10 years. Because virtual reality is graphical, easy to use and requires no formal computer training, it is destined to hit a home run in the mass market. Accessing virtual worlds on the Net will be as routine tomorrow as online text searching is today.

Virtual reality is already being used in training and education. VR flight simulators give new airline pilots a good sense of what it is like to fly a real plane. Virtual reality is also being used to recondition emotional responses. VR experiments have been conducted and have been proven effective in desensitizing people's fears of, among other things, bugs and airline travel. Decreased fears have been documented and the effects have been shown to be long-lasting. Moreover, subjects report that they recall their VR experiences when they encounter the real thing and that this calms them down.

Thus, VR is shaping up to be a very powerful teaching tool. Using computer-generated environments to simulate real-world experiences allows people to learn at their own pace. Additionally, people are more highly motivated to learn when they are working through their own choices. Moreover, VR learning is multimodal and studies show that higher retention is achieved when learners "see, hear and do" than when the signal comes through just a single channel. VR lets people learn from their experiences, not just memorize a bunch of rules. For all of these reasons, training in sophisticated settings from business to the military is shifting to virtual reality.

If VR has been shown effective in desensitizing emotional response, can the use of VR for consciousness-raising and heightening sensitivity be far behind? Psychology software is already in use in prisons addressing problem areas like addiction, stress, communication skills and relationships. Inmates are amazed at how accurately the programs describe their deficiencies. Virtual reality is the obvious next step.

Virtual reality, because it can engender a sense of participating in an experience in which personal human choices determine the outcome, can be used to teach empathy to criminal offenders. Here are some ideas for using VR to teach empathy and to impart other humane values to prisoners: *

Make It Happen
Networked virtual reality games in prison libraries? Maybe not this year or the next, but global computer networking is reaching critical mass. It is incumbent on information professionals to keep up with networking technologies and, just as importantly, to devise ways to deploy them in the service of humane values. All of the pieces for networked virtual reality applications will soon be ready for assembly. If information professionals don't do it, someone else will.


Christopher M. Wright is a practicing attorney in the Washington, D.C. area. His credentials include several years of criminal defense work and a recent M.L.S. degree from the University of Maryland. He can be reached at 4603 Amherst Road, College Park, MD 20740; or by phone at 301/779-1775; or by e-mail at cwdirect@wizard.net © Copyright 1998 Christopher M. Wright