Long Form: Technology and Empathy
On the morning of April 12th, 1945 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was sitting for a portrait painting at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia. Two hours into the session, FDR expressed an increasing discomfort in his back. Within hours of his cardiologist identifying a massive cerebral hemorrhage in his brain, FDR was pronounced dead. The morning after, the body of the 32nd President was transported to the nation’s capital. All along the rail tracks up to DC, patrons lined up to say their final goodbye to whom many deemed “America’s best friend.” Two days later 300,000 Americans attended the President’s memorial procession.
What makes this gathering impressive isn’t the fact that such a large group of Americans gathered so quickly (in the non-internet era), or that this would be the first and last time America would lay to rest a President who had served more than two terms, or that no one conjured up the idea of AirBnB at that moment. What was surreal was America’s display of empathy.
A world war, economic chaos, and the beginning of TV technology adoption gave the public greater visibility into the office of the Presidency. However, FDR was still largely an unknown figure. Most Americans had no idea that he had health issues, was a Keynesian, was anti-Semite, or that he liked Winston Churchill. When journalists asked attendants of the President’s memorial service if they personally knew or met the President, the typical response was, “No, but he definitely knew me.”
Almost sixty years later, American is once again bidding adieu to another popular progressive President. However, the display of empathy is visibly different. If one peruses through their social media feeds they can see summaries of their own personal experience with the First family whether it be volunteer experiences, White House photos, or how they relate through race or gender. Yet what seems to be missing is the story of someone who doesn’t fit into these buckets expressing gratitude for the work of the first family.
How can this be? The outgoing President was certainly accessible. According to Jay Carney, former Press Secretary for President Obama, the 44th President conducted over 100 interviews on Youtube channels alone. Mr. Obama has a Twitter, Facebook, and a litany of other avenues for connecting with the electorate. Yet there is scant evidence that the overall public has an apolitical affection of him. John Meachum, a Presidential historian, notes that while Obama’s approval rating are high he has historically fared poorly, in comparison to other Presidents, when examining his polling numbers on empathy.
Yet is it really POTUS’ fault? The diminishing level of empathy isn’t solely confined to the office of the Presidency. Research conducted by Stanford Business Professor Jennifer Aaker, where nearly 14,000 college students were surveyed between 1979 and 2009, showed a sharp decline in the empathy trait over the last 10 years.
Further analysis by the Brookings Institute shows that our erosion of empathy extends far beyond politics. The DC based think tank found that over a ten-year study people are less likely to give to the homeless, donate to relief funds, talk to strangers at bars, or give strangers directions.
Is there an underlying thread that can explain our diminishing levels of empathy? Professor Aaker and the Brookings Institute both blame technology.
It may seem unimaginable to discover that, when it comes to empathy, technology has built more barriers than bridges. However, do we genuinely understand the emotional impact of communication technology and a more automated world? Are digital avenues creating an illusion of empathy? Or are new cyber tools increasing the opportunity to connect and understand the world? With more of our lives moving online all three questions deserve to be examined.
Behavioral scientists and author of the book “Emotional Intelligence” Daniel Goleman describes empathy as, “First, the ability to understand others’ emotions. Additionally, it is about defining, understanding, and reacting to the concerns and needs that underlie others’ emotional responses and reactions.” Goleman further opines that five key elements of empathy are understanding others, developing others, having a service orientation, leveraging diversity, and having political awareness.
All five of these traits are essential in developing any type of relationship whether it be professional, plutonic, or romantic. However, on all fronts there is ample amounts of data highlighting technology’s nefarious impact on our levels of empathy.
Pick up any magazine or newspaper and you’ll see an article on the largest technology companies expanded utilization of machine learning applications and algorithm based solutions. The most frequent justification for building out coded equations is that humans make errors and errors lead to more Nicholas Cage movies. While the latter argument holds merit, tech organizations are discovering calamitous unintended consequences when applying these solutions. Just last year Google faced a PR nightmare when search result of the word ape pulled up images of prominent African Americans and Facebook faced a similar backlash when their “Year in Review” product kept on recycling pictures of those who have been recently deceased.
You can blame the product, but the fault lies in those developing the product. Om Malik, author of the New Yorker article “Silicon Valley has an empathy issues” argues that tech firms have largely ignored the human consequences of their products. When Google, and Tesla brag about their efforts to produce autonomous cars they fail to acknowledge that this innovation could professionally displace one of the last few good paying jobs for those with no college degree. Mr. Malik argues, “Eliminating the need for truck drivers doesn’t just affect those millions of drivers; it has a ripple effect on ancillary services like gas stations, motels, and retail outlets; an entire economic ecosystem could break down.”
While high tech’s commercial effects on empathy may be largely unknown, most millennials have experienced the empathetic mind fuck of dating apps. By now, the evidence regarding online dating’s effect on human decency has become so banal that we are indifferent to the consequence from our behavior on these platforms. That itself is a problem. Dating has always been an arduous task. However, dating at its core as always been a channel to be empathetic. When you meet someone new you try you tap into the five key elements of empathy Goleman discussed (understanding, developing, servicing, being more diverse, political awareness.)
However, when dating no longer becomes an opportunity to understand a stranger’s true character and instead becomes a superficial emotional buffet where you can be overly selective we miss out on a valuable opportunity to exercise that empathy muscle.
While machine learning and human connection application can strain our ability to be empathetic, another dangerous aspect of communication technology is its potential to create illusions of empathy. Jonathan Haidt, a NYU psychology and author of the “Righteous Mind”, has spent decades examining the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives. Haidt has found that subscribers of both ideologies are incredibly empathetic. What he’s found problematic is the evolution of how each side has exploited their online world to create a fabrication of empathy.
During the last 1980 Republican primary presidential debate, Ronald Regan and his then opponent, George H. Bush, were vigorously debating immigration. Judging from the last few rounds of GOP presidential debates, you’d assumed that both candidates were discussing deportation forces, constructing a border wall, or who had bigger hands. When in fact it was quite the opposite. Both candidates spoke passionately about valuing the work of immigrants and the need for a sound regulatory framework to create a more diverse America. Jonathan Haidt attributes this shift in attitude to how conservatives now consume news. He states, “In the early 1980’s you had three news sources with a low-growth business model and little competition, so journalists strove to provide facts and give you all the information. Yet with the rise of Fox News and digital radio sites like Glen Beck and Info Wars you have conservatives who live in their bubbles and don’t have to genuinely understand anything that doesn’t resemble their life.”
A classic example is when Senator from Ohio, Rob Portman, came out in favor of gay marriage. While this pivot in position is commendable, Senator Portman only became a believer in marriage equality after his son came out. When pressed by local newspapers as to why his empathy only extends to issues that personally affect him, he senator replied, “Look, I work in DC, I have a family, and I have a very conservative constituent… I don’t have time to reach out to everyone. In my spare time, I spend time rummaging through the internet to see what the important issues are.” If Senator Portman had spent time outside his bubble he’d realize that Ohio isn’t that conservative and that most of his constituents were already in favor of same sex marriages, but the public official is known to only read Fox News and The Weekly Standard (another very conservative news outlet).
Citizens across the aisle are equally accountable for creating digital illusions of empathy. While young liberals are the strongest proponents of integrating the latest technology into their lives, they also highlight the pitfalls of immersing blindly into a digital world. It is true that liberals are more likely to work in non-profits and raise social media awareness to issues that don’t directly affect them, but the actual charitable work and level of tolerance by progressives is debatable. Empathy forces you to understand pain, but a key component of empathy is also to endure and triumph in difficult times. Often, liberals tend to skip the latter.
As Goleman notes part of empathy is being politically aware. Review the latest news about the state of college campuses, a liberal playground, and you’ll see countless stories about the student body protesting speakers with opposing political beliefs, walking out on courses teaching free market economics, and opening scolding administrators for hiring conservative leaning Professors. Examine all the variables that construct the fabric of a college experience and the only thing that’s changed in the past ten years is technology.
I went to Berkeley fourteen years ago, when Facebook wasn’t a platform for news or supporting social causes. Even with my progressive upbringing, I was still deemed politically moderate among my peers. Yet, my four-year experience involved vigorous debate and fruitful friendships with people from different political backgrounds. From 1970 to 2010, the Berkeley College Republicans (BCR) was the largest group on campus. In 2016, with an aggressive campaign from the student body, the BCR is in the process of shutting down. Even Bill Maher, an icon of the left, was deemed too offensive and was met with massive protest when he spoke at Berkeley’s graduation ceremony in 2015.
There is strong data that liberals continue to fabricate empathy past college. Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Who Cares” examined which groups donated and volunteered more time to non-religious charities. The overwhelming evidence showed, that in the age of internet, liberals gave less and donated much less of their time to charitable organizations.
Judd Apatow recently quipped about his fellow progressives, “There is a danger on the internet that you think you’re accomplishing something…You see an article about a disease and retweet it…And you’ve fooled yourself into thinking that you’ve done something productive.”
While the quest for a more empathetic society in a digital age looks bleak, there are communities that give us hope, and one of those groups are the Mormons. Yes Mormons.
We all should raise our non-alcoholic glass to Mormons. The Church of Latter Day Saints has had an egregious history when it comes to race and sexual orientation, but we should acknowledge their progress when it comes to empathy. Salt Lake City has become a mecca for foodies, light rail lovers, and gay clubs. Additionally, when so called “Christian value voters” stuck with Donald Trump despite everything he said, a significant number of Mormons spurned the President-elect.
Where did this sense of empathy comes from? If you have a Mormon friend, then all of you have a two-year gap in your friendship. Every subscriber to the Joseph Smith club must spend two years abroad in service of their church. During this double gap year, Mormons are forced for remove themselves from the online world so they can explore their new community. Imagine spending 24 months away from a comfortable setting where one must face the challenges of immersing one selves in an unknown culture with no digital outlets. Regardless of your political belief, there would be ample opportunity to flex that empathy muscle.
Empathy is created when we have opportunities to discover things we share and despite all the evidence presented, there are instances where technology creates meaningful connections.
There may be one dating app that may give us faith in humanity. Verona is dating app that connects Israeli and Palestinians. The app has connected over 2000 users and in every metric dating app use to gauge success (dates, returning customers, etc.) Verona fares well. The app creator, Mathew Nolan, believes the initial success is due to the app forcing people to leave their comfort zones and understand the true character of their potential match.
Another online platform doing remarkable work is the social lending platform Kiva. The non-profit allows users to send a small loan to entrepreneurs around the world. The organization has facilitated over 2.5 million loans in over 150 nations since 2010.
Lastly, none of us are (or should be) strangers to the website Humans of New York. The site, developed by Brandon Stanton, shares photographs of citizens from the globe’s most cosmopolitan city and highlights how we can all relate to one another, regardless of our background or social class.
The reality is no matter how exhaustive one’s examines the relationship between empathy and technology the correlation will be difficult to quantify. Technology is a paradox; it is an evolving norm that will transform daily human interaction which can either bring us together or destroy us. We as humans still can break free from our digital boundaries and have the experiences that allow us to build on our pillars of empathy.
One week ago, when the President Obama gave his farewell address he called upon Americans to be more kind and more understanding about our world. I hope that part of the first African-American’s President legacy will be, that in an era of massive division and partisanship, he displayed a fierce commitment toward empathy. This may be a grand assumption on my part, because I don’t know the man nor will I ever probably meet him. But I know from the past eight years of watching his speeches, viewing his social media work, and listening to his interviews he definitely knew me.