Empathy is a critical component of human interactions, and has been essential to our evolution as a social species. It lies at the root of our dominance over other species that do not share the collaboration mindset. Effective social interactions and behaviour modelling create group cohesion and action. And as the world becomes ever more urban and crowded, empathy is more important that ever. There is among some scientists a palpable fear that modern technology decreases empathy, lessening our intuitive social skills. But the potential for technology to actually increase empathetic feelings is immense — so can the use of technologies therefore make us more human?
An article in the New York Times this week queried the effect of facebook on relationships: does using facebook make people less inclined to invest in face-to-face contact? It may be too soon to tell, but a recent study has indicated that technology is still just the medium. Those inclined toward fulfilling relationships will use facebook as a tool to expand and deepen them. Those inclined to withdraw from society will use facebook to withdraw still further.
One insightful commenter disagreed, noting that his own studies have found that, among college-age students, empathy has been declining over 30 the past years, and markedly so over the last 10. His findings jived with a recent article in Scientific American on the same subject. The implication, of course, is that all that time at the keyboard, along with the general trend toward social isolation, reading less fiction for pleasure, and an uptick in the number of youth who describe themselves as conservative, has re-wired our brains in such a way that we can no longer relate as well to each other. Moreover, technology makes it easier for people to be exposed to only what they want to be exposed to, and only world views that align with their own – incomprehensible amounts of such one-sided content, in fact. Limiting exposure to those who think the same way is a choice increasingly made by those who can afford to do so.
But I can’t help but wonder if technology is, again, just the medium through which all of this plays out. Those who don’t want to encounter anyone who votes for a different political party or has a lesser socio-economic status and who consequently cloister themselves in a one-note Internet news digest, for example, are the same people who will live in a gated community in the real world, lessening empathy and social cohesion in that way.
And technology can also help empathy expand and grow in the real world. An honourary TED talk I watched recently showed a historical extension of empathy from individual to blood relatives, clans, nations, and even other species. The key is exposure, understanding, and a feeling of shared goals. Without the Internet, there would be a lot less exposure to and understanding of different cultures. Would the “jasmine revolutions” have spread so quickly without knowledge sharing between underemployed 20-somethings with Twitter accounts? Thomas Friedman thinks not, and also credits other technologically-reliant factors with helping to spur them on. Among these are widespread reporting of what corrupt officials were up to through Al Jazeera, the ability to see vas swaths of underutilized government-owned farmland via Google Earth, and an image of China on the rise from the Beijing Olympics.
As far as shared goals, technological interactions are in some places considered to set the standard for cooperation and teamwork. A recent Economist article argued that playing World of Warcraft or similar team-oriented role-playing games can increase engagement and skill-building, leading to greater success in the workplace. (Hey, it worked for the CIO of Starbucks.)
The narrative of the game may be key here. Writing in the Journal of Evolution & Technology, PJ Manney locates storytelling at the centre of empathy. Stories are compelling ways of showing how humans share the same desires, values, hopes, dreams, and fears, he says, and technology has always been important to diffuse stories between different cultures. As the evolution of technology has taken us from the printing press and the novel to instantaneous news and the explosion of opinions in blogs, storytelling has become more immediate, more prolific, and more visual. And, returning to the theme of post-humanism (or the near-synonym transhumanism, or “H+”, which Manney refers to), the future human that has made use of sensory technologies to the point of incorporating them into his or her make-up can be even more directly connected to others by literally experiencing the world as they do. Manney refers to this sensory augmentation as “a more effective connection with others, through a merging of thought or telepathic link or internalized instant messaging.” This is WoW with human-human interactions, instead of human-character role-playing.
Posthumanism/transhumanism is feared, as I wrote about in an earlier post, because some believe technological “enhancements” would create inherent inequalities among humans. Yet it is possible that technology could incite a great equalization of feeling and experience — and empathy. In effect such changes would therefore make us better able to relate to each other, and in the end more human, not less so.