Anyone who has either read the book or seen the film version of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange will be familiar with the scene depicting the “rehabilitation” of the protagonist, Alex. A team at the University of Barcelona has developed and begun trials of a new application of virtual reality technology that has echoes of the method used in that scene.
The scene depicts Alex being forced to watch video recordings of simulated ultraviolence for hours on end, strapped so tightly into a chair that he can’t move and with his eyelids pinned open. The rationale behind the method (called the ‘Ludovico Technique’) is that, given sufficient exposure to acts of extreme violence from the point of view of an onlooker, the criminal will eventually empathize with the victim enough to understand in a highly visceral way not just that violence is wrong, but why it is wrong.
The idea that this understanding is an important key to success in rehabilitation is not new or particularly controversial. What is in question, however, is whether the rehabilitation is so cruel to the offender that it is morally unsupportable. In the context of the film, it is also important that Alex is not simply being imprisoned, some concessions — however small — having been made regarding his liberty. In having his eyes pinned open and his movement completely restricted, he is absolutely prevented from making any choices.
Back in contemporary (virtual) reality, the BBC recently reported about one experiment involving a volunteer placed in a simulation in which he looks in a mirror and sees the reflection of a girl. An adult then subjected the girl to abuse. The simulation presumably makes the volunteer imagine what it would be like to be the victim of the abuse. There are numerous ways in which these simulations could be used in the context of different kinds of crimes, some of which may be more ethically ambiguous than others. (The severity of the crime in question could be a factor for some.)
The proposed success of this VR application is predicated on the idea that offenders wouldn’t commit similar acts of violence if they learned to empathize sufficiently with their victim. One concern, however, might be that the experience could be so disturbing that it would be wrong to subject anybody to it — irrespective of whether or not they have committed the very offense that they are now being forced to experience. The two sides of this argument undergirds much of the more general debate around the treatment of criminals. To put it another way, it requires us to consider what kinds of legal rights criminals should either retain or forfeit after conviction.
Most people don’t object to society’s use of prison to limit the freedom of violent criminals. It is generally expected that the prisons exist to protect society from further criminal acts — to punish and rehabilitate the prisoners so that they don’t commit further crimes upon release. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex’s treatment — rehabilitation by shock — is devised to speed up the usual lengthy process of rehabilitation by incarceration and counseling, thus reducing the financial burden to society.
Shock is also more generally central to A Clockwork Orange’s effectiveness. The violence that Alex and his droogs visit upon innocent people is particularly shocking because they do it for fun. But it’s not just Alex and his droogs who are sociopathic. Dr. Brodsky — the doctor in charge of Alex’s peculiar “rehabilitation” — is also deranged. He and the other doctors are exposed as sadists. They want Alex to suffer. They are not seeking to change Alex’s behavior without causing him further psychological harm. During his first session, Alex begs the doctors to stop, but Dr. Brodsky’s response is sinister: ‘”Stop it? Stop it, did you say? Why, we’ve hardly started.’ And he and the others smecked quite loud.“ (‘Smecking’ is Alex’s slang for laughing.) Burgess’ story suggests an equivalence between Alex and the authorities. According to our social ideals, rehabilitation, in so far as it is meant to be therapeutic and beneficial, ought not be cruel — nor should it do damage to the prisoner.
Cruelty is a theme that pervades A Clockwork Orange and the world that it describes is one that only a psychotic would wish to inhabit. Violence and cruelty are ineradicable features of human society, but it is crucial that we can understand them as normatively wrong and intolerable. Institutionalized cruelty, on the other hand, is preventable and should not be permitted. But the boundaries between therapy, punishment and cruelty can sometimes be ambiguous.
Most technologies are ethically neutral. It’s all in how they’re used. We all own knives that we could use to kill or torture. But since most of us don’t use them for these purposes we don’t worry that knives are, in some way, an intrinsically evil technology. Books and movies are analogous; it is possible to produce gratuitously cruel or harmful works but that’s not generally how these mediums are used and we don’t afford a particular moral status to the medium itself. The danger with technology is in how it can be misused, and this is what is at stake in the discussion about VR for rehabilitation.
The Barcelona team’s aim is to explore the therapeutic benefit of putting people in a situation where they can empathize, which is a reasonable goal for experimentation. Given that humans must be used as subjects for experimentation, however, the risk is always present that in exploring the differences between people put in different virtual scenarios, they might generate situations where a subject could be damaged by the experience, even if their experience does succeed in also making them empathetic.
In A Clockwork Orange, Alex is so shocked by what he is forced to watch that he does come to empathize with his victims and understand why his crimes were so wrong. The fact that the violence he is made to watch is simulated, rather than real, makes no difference when it comes to its effect on him. Reflecting on one of the videos, Alex says, “I knew it could not really be real, but that made no difference.” The VR trials seem to elicit similar reports from both the developers and test subjects. One of the designers of the VR simulations, Bernard Spanlang from the University of Barcelona, claims the following: “The visual quality is not very important. What is more important is that the virtual reality reacts in a way that you would expect it to. So even if you render the scene in wire-frame, based on triangles without any shading, in experiments people react as if they were in that place.” The reader’s or viewer’s reaction is similarly not lessened by knowing that the violence is not strictly real. Although Alex does gain empathy through his experience, this empathy is achieved by brutal force and, for this reason, we feel sympathy towards him despite of his criminal past.
Alex and his droogs don’t treat people as fellow human beings but rather as a way of experiencing their own personal sadistic enjoyment. If rehabilitation is so frightening that it forces people into recovery, we might argue that those in control of the treatment are failing equally to treat the offender with sufficient empathy as a fellow human being. These kinds of precedents are dangerous because some crimes are so serious that people may feel justified in preventing their repetition at any cost. While this is understandable — and as much as we want to eliminate violent crime — we should think about what we might want to preserve about ourselves,.
“Who watches the watchmen?” The question is persistent. It was relevant when Juvenal first wrote it (in its Latin formulation ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’). It was a key theme in Plato’s Republic. And it’s still relevant now. The society described in A Clockwork Orange is frightening because of the manner in which it treats social dissent. There is no way that Alex can even choose to close his eyes so that he does not see what is on the screen. In this way his freedom is restricted absolutely — the methods used go way beyond coercion, and in this removal of autonomy the authorities use a totalitarian type of cruelty to achieve their aims.
The manner of treatment in A Clockwork Orange is redolent of the brainwashing that Winston Smith is subjected to in George Orwell’s 1984, a novel that similarly describes the horrors of a totalitarian society whose administration uses cruelty to change behavior. The vision that O’Brien (the member of The Party who treats Winston) offers of the future is chilling: ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.’ He goes on to explain that ‘The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or long life or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power.’ Both 1984 and A Clockwork Orange describe regimes that use technology to carry out atrocities in the name of treatment. They are extreme examples, but they are not impossible.
If you go to Cartagena in Colombia you can visit the Museum of the Spanish Inquisition. Here you can see machines of extreme cruelty that were used 400 years ago to extract “confessions’” of witchcraft or heresy and to prevent future dissent. At the time, these were modern and novel applications of new technology. While they seem primitive today, they are still terrifying. Technology moves quickly, but humans have not changed significantly since the time of the Inquisition, and we still need to be careful that new technologies are not used in ways that either we, or future societies, might regret. Unfortunately, there are no grounds for believing that a new technology developed in the name of ‘treatment’ won’t end up in a torture museum of the future.
Political freedom consists of being able to make choices, and incarceration limits this freedom to a degree that we might find morally acceptable, as do methods of rehabilitation that do not restrict freedom absolutely, and which intend to return liberty in the long run. All three of the extreme examples mentioned — A Clockwork Orange, 1984 and the Spanish Inquisition — are paradigmatic of what can occur when political freedom is removed completely using technology, either in the name of punishment or treatment. In these cases, it is not at all clear that what is being institutionalized is remotely morally acceptable.
This may, of course, all seem like an overstated analogy to experiments in VR rehab. Undoubtedly, in developing a way to use VR for crime prevention, the Barcelona team has laudable ethical aims, but anyone acquainted with A Clockwork Orange might be alarmed by the similarities between the fictional and the actual. The uses of new technologies to treat criminal behaviors are not axiomatically benign, and the issues raised must be taken seriously. It is crucial that we are aware of the risks of new technologies when the state is making decisions about including them in its arsenal of options for treatment. Just as A Clockwork Orange and the Spanish Inquisition remain shocking today, we ought to be mindful of what is at stake when the state is in control of the legal boundaries of “therapy,” particularly in view of technologies such as the one being developed in Barcelona.