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.  ↩