Given the likelihood that many of those who have been incarcerated will be discriminated against in the labor market as it currently operates, the question remains: who is actually profiting from VR- training for prisoners? And how does this technical fix subdue the call for more far-reaching aims, such as to weaken the carceral apparatus or to reimagine how the labor market operates?
In fact, VR is more likely employed to generate greater empathy for officers than, say, for people who are the object of police harassment and violence. According to a report published by a website geared to law enforcement, VR is a “public relations tool for strengthening public opinion of law enforcement because the technology allows a user to virtually walk in a cop’s shoes … police agencies could bring VR into classrooms and community centers so the public can experience firsthand the challenges police officers face on patrol.”30 If even empathy machines are enrolled in the New Jim Code, what do abolitionist tools look like? What does an emancipatory approach to tech entail?
Rethinking Design Thinking Now keep in mind that empathy is the first of five steps in an approach called “design thinking”: empathize; define; ideate; prototype; test. Although there are different versions of this methodology, this is the one most commonly cited as the basis of “human-centered design.” But, as we think about coded inequity and discriminatory design, it is vital to question which humans are prioritized in the process. Practically speaking, the human paying the designer’s bill is the one most likely prioritized. But more people are speaking out about problems and pitfalls in the world of design, where the assumptions and methods of designers do not receive nearly as much critical engagement as they should.
Graphic designer Natasha Jen puts it bluntly in her talk “Design Thinking is Bullsh*t,” urging design practitioners to avoid the jargon and buzzwords associated with their field, to engage in more self-
criticism, to base their ideas on evidence, and to stop assuming that their five-step process is needed for any and every thing. On that last point, she notes a number of activities (such as surrounding a children’s MRI machine with a cartoon mural) as examples of obvious ideas that do not require the input of professional designers.
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