Essays on Technology and Culture

The Empathy Gap

There’s a theory that people with autism don’t lack empathy, but have an excess of it. The social symptoms are parts of the brain shutting down to protect itself from being overwhelmed by emotion. As a theory, it’s interesting to think about, and as someone on the spectrum, who is fully aware of the intensity of emotions that can wash over him in response to someone’s stories of pain, it rings true.

In the early days of the Internet, much noise was made and much ink was spilled about how connecting the planet together would usher in a utopia of understanding. The barriers to understanding between peoples would fall, the lines on the map between countries would be revealed imaginary, and peace would rule the land. You still see a shade or two of this rhetoric in the high-minded idealist language in tech company press releases, but most of us see through it.

As we move deeper into the Social Media age, where all people (who can afford it) are connected at all times, the great promise of universal understanding and empathy looks to be further and further from reality. I don’t need to unspool a litany of the horrors, especially haven written about them here before. There’s been a plenty of attempts to rationalize the horrors of what goes on, the most infamous being John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, better known in polite society as the Online Disinhibition Effect.

I wonder if it’s possibly that over a certain limit, perhaps Dunbar’s Number, the human capacity not only for stable relationships, but for empathy, decreases. The human mind is a hodgepodge of cognitive shortcuts that make it easy for us—all of us—to lump people into categories of who deserves, or doesn’t, our empathy and understanding. I can only speak for myself, with no research to draw on [1], but I know it’s incredibly difficult for me to empathize with a person who has ended up in the category I’ll call my “shit list.” It’s true that nobody thinks they’re stupid, and everybody has their reasons. That doesn’t mean that I understand. My inability to do so, or even try, for those on the outs with me, is a major shortcoming. My hope is that I share it with others, who seek to overcome.

When writing about topics like these in the past, I’ve often made the claim that it’s too early to tell, and that as we adapt to the new, connected world we live in, things will reach equilibirum. Right now, that rings hollow, as much as I agree that we’re in the prehistoric period of connected life. It rings hollow, despite seeing that the Internet and social media have created new communities of understanding on a certain scale. They’ve helped united disparate groups of the marginalized, and made them a force to be reckoned with. The push towards trans visibility, against racial police violence, and against misogyny in the technology space, they all have been enabled through technology. That’s powerful stuff.

The priorities of the companies who control the experience we have online, who mediate our interactions—even in the lightest sense—have had little incentive to work towards empathy. Twitter has been stepping up their game since the Gamergate fiasco, and I’m glad to see it even if their latest product is failing to protect users. The angle seems to be approaching these problems with a technological solution, but technology only is a dollar store, generic band-aid on a deep wound.

How do we overcome the empathy gap? Simply throwing us together in a virtual room with no rules, and no enforcers, isn’t enough. In their absence, it comes down to us to govern ourselves, and trying to cultivate empathy. It’s within the capabilities of everyone to do so, it just takes practice and work.

I would like to issue a challenge to whoever is still reading. The next time you see something pass through your Twitter stream that irks you, when you see someone else’s outrage, try to think about why someone is reacting the way they are. Don’t half-ass this. Going “Oh, they’re too sensitive and need to get some perspective” isn’t the right way to go about it. You need to actually try. You might fail, but that’s okay. Understand that something might not affect you, but it affects them. It’s not our job to question someone’s lived experience, only to try and understand. Empathy springs from this, hopefully enough to bridge the gap.

  1. If someone can point me towards studies in the vein of the hypothesis I’m making here, send them my way.  ↩


Sometimes, the words aren’t there.

Sometimes, the words are there, but they’re not the ones considered appropriate for the situation. They’re four-letter words, or compounds and derivatives thereof, often beginning with the letter F. Those words convey emotion, important and powerful emotion. Those words are cathartic.

They don’t make for a good essay.

Right now, the four-letter invectives I’m summoning are aimed at legislation—signed into law in Indiana, and heading to the governor’s desk in Arkansas—that makes it legal for business owners to discriminate against people for their sexual orientation. More than legal—protected.

Thankfully, the backlash has been swift, and serious, from Tim Cook’s inspiring Op Ed in The Washington Post, to the Front Page of The Indianapolis Star.

Yet, I’m still having trouble finding polite words. I don’t know why polite words are necessary right now.


I’ve not kept my own sexuality much of a secret among people I know. I came out publicly as bisexual after Tim Cook’s announcement of his homosexuality in October. If the leader of one of the biggest companies in the world can be openly gay, a schmuck like me can be openly bisexual. After all, visibility matters. There was a time, before and after I realized my sexual orientation, when I didn’t really see the point. I thought the battle had been won, and the end of the war was in sight.

Laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act are proof of why visibility matters. Would the horrible humans who drafted this legislation, who voted for it, and signed it into law had even considered assenting to it if someone they knew—a friend, a family member, their child—were gay?

I can’t speak for any of them, but I’m the the answer for some would be yes. Some people are just that hateful.

But others, I’m certain, would change their minds if they knew that someone close to them would be a victim of legalized hatred and discrimination for something they have no control over.

We have to do something. Speaking out only is the start. Boycotts are only a start.

The only thing that’ll keep this terrible nonsense, and future horrors like the (thankfully failed) Kentucky bill that offered a bounty for outing transgendered individuals, is to vote the hateful, spiteful bigots out of office, and keep new ones from being voted in. It has to happen at the state, local, and federal levels.

I have friends online and off who are of devout faith. They know who I am, and my orientation, and even if their religion doesn’t like it, they’ve treated me as I treat them—with kindness and respect. With love. If only the people in government who claim to be of faith, who claim to speak for people of faith would treat us all the same way. Maybe then we in the LGBT community wouldn’t have to exhaust ourselves in fighting to be seen as the human beings we are.

Maybe I had the words after all.

The Urbanist

I was born in the city. I was raised in the city. God willing, I’ll die in the city, though maybe not the same city I was born in.

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It’s the only way of life I’ve known. I was born and raised in Philadelphia. My childhood spent in a residential neighborhood of row houses in the Tacony neighborhood. I went to middle school and high school just north of downtown Philadelphia, and attended college in Brooklyn before returning to Philadelphia to finish my education. I lived in West Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill for four years before moving back to New York in 2012, where I intend to stay. The city is in my blood.

I read paeans to the beauty, the tranquility, and the silence of rural life, but I don’t understand it. The silence scares me, unnerves me, especially since it’s never really silent out there. The wind blows and rustles the trees, the insects chatter and buzz, and when you’re used to man-made noises, grew up with them outside your window, it makes sleep difficult. At least in the city, I’m used to the noises, and can tune them out, unless it’s the damn ice cream truck.

The city is density and noise, but it’s also livelihood. It’s never wanting for something to do, even if you don’t want to do anything. It’s being able to walk to the grocery store and back—maybe with a Granny Cart—or ordering in food from almost any cuisine you can name. It’s a neighborhood bar I can walk to, and stagger home from. It’s being able to commune about the miseries of delayed subway trains without speaking a word. It’s finding the silent place, no matter where it is, and appreciating it, for you know it is transient.

Cities let you hide in plain sight. You come and you go placidly, amid the noise and waste, and remember what comfort there my be in being a part thereof. Whatever sins of urban living you commit today, and you will commit at least one, will be washed away overnight. When you get back on the train the next morning, nobody will even remember. It’s liberating, in a way. It’s the introvert’s dream. All the people around you are extras in the movie of your life, and you are an extra in theirs.

The city is freedom. It’s liberation. Where do the disaffected congregate? Where do the immigrants, minorities, the shunned collect? The city. They build support structures for each other, they build businesses and lives. Every city has its neighborhood whose identity is defined by the people who built a community there, where nobody else would have them. From Chinatowns to Gayborhoods, the marginalized and the different have used cities as places to lift themselves up. One of my favorite New York city memories is walking in the West Village, on my way back to the subway to go home, seeing a man in traditional Saudi garb, talking politics, and saying with the utmost sincerity: “I am an American!” He is, no question.

The city is real life amplified. Sarah Larson, in her essay on the recent gas explosion and fire in Manhattan’s East Village puts it perfectly:

Living in New York intensifies the common life experience of having daily pleasures and terrible accidents coexist in close proximity. Terrible things can happen right near you, and chance determines whether your life is changed. Most of the time, incredibly, we remain safe.

You can’t forget you exist in the big city. Doing so is to risk death, or at least serious injury. It’s not so much falling down an open manhole cover, more like getting hit by a delivery guy on a bike. That’s the most danger you’ll probably be in, a large, American city’s downtown in 2015. Random horrors can occur anywhere. In the city, the infrastructure is there to deal with it quickly. The NYFP was on the scene of the explosion in three minutes flat. That’s impressive work anywhere.

I’ll never say the ruralists are wrong. It’s a big enough country, a big enough planet, that they can live in their place apart and be happy. I hope they enjoy it. For me, I thrive in city life. I live for long walks on city blocks, curious of what’s new, amazed by what’s old—yet new to me. It’s all here, in the wild, noisy, organized chaos of what I call home. The country is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

RIP, The Synopsis

Today we are writing to announce that we have published the last issue of The Synopsis. It was a fun experiment, which unfortunately no longer makes financial sense to continue onwards with.

Thank You, It Was Fun – The Synopsis

Terribly disappointed to read this. I looked forward to seeing The Synopsis update popping up in my daily RSS feed, and it was a great replacement for the dearly departed Tab Dump. I’m no news junkie, and that’s why The Synopsis was so great: just a quick way to find out what happened in the last 24 hours.

I hope someone fills the void, and quick. I’d do it myself if I had the time.

How to Properly Sort and Organize Your iTunes Library

Maybe it’s because I spent many of my early years in libraries, or maybe it’s because I’m just wired a certain way, but I find the way iTunes organizes music, out of the box, infuriating. The default way iTunes alphabetizes everything throws me off. Take artist names. I learned from an early age that when dealing with any form of media, you alphabetize based on the last name of the artist. So, if you’re dealing with albums by Elvis Costello and Elvis Presley, you would sort the former under “C” and the latter under “P”. Instead, iTunes sorts both under “E”.

An even more egregious example is bands whose names start with “The”. Definite articles, in any language, are ignored with alphabetizing anything. Otherwise, you have a huge stretch of a music library of just “The” bands: The Beatles, The Clash, The Doors… which makes finding things a pain. Fortunately, iTunes added a feature back in version 7 to make this sane: Sort Tags. It’s possible to now set how you want an artist’s name to sort. By default, iTunes, since version 7, ignores “The” when sorting artists and albums. You can also assign a sort tag to an artist so that it places them last name first. So, the first thing to do if you want your iTunes library organized and sorted properly is to set your sort tags. Any artist known by a first and last name (even a stage name) is assigned a sort tag in my library in the format “Last name, First name”.

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A trickier problem comes if you are a fan of any band or artist that’s released material under multiple band names. If you’re a fan of Frank Zappa, you might understand the issue well. Some of his material was released under the band name “The Mothers of Invention”, some as just Frank Zappa, some as “The Mothers”, some as “Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention”, and at least one as “Zappa / Mothers”. Enter the Album Artist tag. You can set different values in these tags, so by assigning Album Artist the value of “Frank Zappa” (sorted as “Zappa, Frank”), and Artist as “The Mothers of Invention”, all my Zappa albums appear together, but the artist value is correct for playback and tracking in

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The trickiest of all problems is how to deal with joint albums, say David Byrne’s collaboration with the amazing St. Vincent. I found an easy solution by assigning the joint act’s name to the both Artist and Album Artist fields, and sorting by the last name of the top billed artist. I’m flexible on solutions for this one, but keep in mind that standard alphabetization practice is always based on the name that comes first.

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You’re now most of the way to a properly organized and sorted iTunes library. There’s one more change you’ll need to make, however. By default, iTunes not only organizes artists alphabetically, but also albums. This is a no go for me. I organize all my albums by date of original release, and so should you. This one’s easy to fix. Click the drop down at the top-right corner of your iTunes window and set the “Sort by” drop down to “Artist” and the “Then” drop down to “Year”.


You’ll then want to go back through your library to make sure the dates on your albums are set to the correct year—the year of their original release. If you don’t want to do this manually, the free MusicBrainz Picard Mac app is a great solution for cleaning up your tags automatically. Even if you bought all your music from iTunes, it’s worth running it through Picard, because iTunes releases often assign the date to the year it was released on iTunes, and that helps nobody.

That’s all you need to do. Get proper album artwork, either from iTunes or Album Art Exchange, and then you can enjoy your music, organized properly, like a civilized human being. Sort Tags, and Album Artist transfer to iOS devices , so your artist views will be properly organized, though you’ll also need to switch on “Group By Album Artist” in the Music section of settings. Sadly, iOS devices don’t allow you to sort albums by year within an artist view, but my iOS replacement music app of choice, Cesium, does. It’s worth the $1.99 for the peace of mind.