By Jennifer Lehner and Jackie Acho

This digital bonanza is freaking us out. What kind of humans are we becoming when our faces are smashed into screens?  Will technology make us a more or less empathetic society?  Can computers feel love?  The time for hand wringing or opting out is over.  The sooner we realize that we can’t stop this speeding bus -all we can do is try to drive it where it needs to go – the better off we will be.

In this recent NYT column, Tom Friedman argued that: technology will allow Millennials to either do more harm or more good than any generation prior.  Absolutely.  We believe empathy will make all the difference in their world, so we must design our use of technology with the end in mind.

As much as computers can approximate  our cognitive functioning, computers cannot do empathy.  In the movie Her, Joaquin Phoenix’s character genuinely feels less lonely by talking to his OS system, Samatha.  And yes, there is an underlying neuroscience to empathy, which might be ignited or simulated by a computer.  But it is the human who

  • has the feeling
  • realizes eternal truth
  • channels cosmos into the chaos
  • loves in a way that crosses time and space

…not the computer.  Real empathy will always be a human endeavor.

It is the people using the technology  – you, me, we – who harness it for good or “evil”, as with every tool we’ve ever held in our hands….from rocks to iPhones.  Used well, technology helps create empathy.  How?

Global Exposure, Exponential Connectivity, and Empathy by Design

There is no empathy without exposure.    We must be exposed to people, places and experiences in order to build true empathy because exposure allows us to find our commonalities with “the other”.  It allows us to view “the other” with a human face.  In the same world that gave birth to Bernie Madoff, Ted Bundy, and The Kardashians, up spring Kiva, Caring Bridge, and the “Greece on the Breadline” series.

Kiva allows us to give microloans to entrepreneurs across the world, allowing for deeper connections, engagement, and compassion.  Caring Bridge is a nonprofit site that serves 500,000 daily by bringing people together during times of health crises. In his “Greece on the Breadline” series, Guardian journalist, Jon Henley uses Twitter to connect with Greek citizens to learn how they are faring with the economic crisis there. What he is discovering, as the world watches,  is that people are doing incredibly innovative  and compassionate things, using social media to organize and make ends meet.

There can also be empathy by design.  Jane McGonigal, a game designer, says in this TED talk that computer gamification can change the world to make it better.  Games can be used to create and build compassion and solve world problems.

Social Media is Here for Good…if We Choose

The examples of social media used for good are endless and growing.

This recent New York Times article  – a two part 33 year study of behaviors in public, including cellphone use – suggests that we are MORE social now than before.  It’s a long way from a slam dunk but persuasive none-the-less. The article also discusses another study in the 90s that observed residents housed in ultra-connected high tech homes v. the control group of people in “regular” houses. The study revealed that those who were connected digitally were also much more engaged socially within their communities.  Not only were people not opting out of bowling leagues — Robert Putnam’s famous metric for community engagement — for more screen time; they were also using their computers to opt in.”

In a recent Foreign Policy essay, CEO David Rothkopf argues that the most transformational development of the last 25 years is the proliferation of cell phones— now up to 6 billion people (compared to 4.5B who have toilets!)— and the social networks they have enabled.  Mobile phones are transforming retail, education, entrepreneurship, politics, law enforcement…everything.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.  It’s up to us.  If you want to design your approach to social media with the end in mind, here is a great place to start.

Still Empathy in the Midst of Technology is not a Given…and, like Everything, it Starts at Home

Empathy is a muscle we have to exercise.  New technologies create more choices, and more choices allow for personal growth and development, including an opportunity to build our empathy.  When we connect to each other via technology, we are weaving a tapestry of limitless human connection that until now was never possible.

However, technology can also be a distraction and addiction – vying for our time and separating us from the people who are right here, right now.  It’s hard to completely buy into the fictional dystopia painted in Dave Eggers “best business book” of 2013, The Circle.  Still for those of us who participate in social media, the story hits a nerve.  That Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc have enough information to take over the world is not, ironically, the biggest worry (and by the way, it’s too late).  More pernicious is the addictive nature of checking our messages, counting our likes/dislikes/followers, and diving into the virtual world whenever the real one gets tough.

Technology can be a special challenge for modern parents who now carry the office around in their pockets.  There’s no denying that parents are more distracted than ever by their phones.  And there is no denying that this is a risk to our growing empathy in our children.  Too much tech and we stop tuning into our kids, just when they need us most.  But this is not technology talking here.  It is addiction.  And addiction always has been and always will be a bad thing for human relationships, especially with our children.  Our parents may not have had iPhones, but they could pop a valium and wash it down with a martini while puffing on a cigarette.  Take away the iPhone, pills, martinis and cigarettes, and something else will always take its place.

When addiction is managed, there are infinite ways technology can support family and work relationships.  There is no doubt that technology allows people to work flexibly, communicate with colleagues around the world, and answer any question.  Technology also helps us find everything from the best doctors to the nearest playground…..and most important of all, fellowship.  Technology powers our virtual village.

So, let’s get on with the work at hand.  We must figure out how we find balance between these little addictive boxes and the tangible world around us. As long as we continue to have this conversation – and the conversation has really only just begun – empathy will swell. Not in spite of technology, but if we use it well, BECAUSE of it.


Jennifer Lehner is President and CEO of the PosnerLehner Group, a marketing consulting firm. 

We thank Eva Basilion for her contributions to this post.

Photo credit: http://waytooindie.com/news/trailer/watch-her-trailer/

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An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder


An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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