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Empathy: A Requiem

It was the summer of 1977 when I drove with my fiancé’s younger brother to the Hollywood Boulevard Walk-of-Fame. Neither of us was that impressed with the famous names on the sidewalk; we were there to stand in line at Mann’s Chinese Theater for the very first Star Wars movie. These were the days when Hollywood was still a thing, and Mann’s (built in 1927) was a historic place to see a film. It also boasted of the revolutionary new THX sound system. We were blown away before the opening crawl.

That was a long time ago...

For reasons of both nostalgia and curiosity, I sat down at home recently to re-watch Episode IV (that same film). No longer was I captivated by light sabers, the quirky patrons of Mos Eisley Cantina, or the mysteries of “The Force”. Our 4K HD flatscreen and Dolby Surround sound system did a respectable job of blowing me away, but the novelty of the film had worn off, and I was drawn more to the story arc and the various plot clues.

One memorable line was delivered by Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan – “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” The characters soon discover that the entire planet Alderaan, with all its inhabitants, had just been destroyed. The Force, it seems, has a lot to do with empathy – the ability to connect with the feelings of others or to feel with them.

The entire Star Wars ennealogy, we are reminded at the beginning of each episode, takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Assuming the filmmakers intended their work as a glimpse into our future, we can surmise that we will one day travel at the speed of light, colonize planets throughout the galaxy, and still not have paint that doesn’t peel off. It also appears that empathy will be the province of a select few in whom the Force is strong.

There is already some evidence that this waning of empathy is underway. It is hard to miss the impact of Internet anonymity on human civility – it is much like the road rage that arises when the protection of a four-wheeled steel cocoon frees some to vent their accumulated anger.

Not surprisingly, empathetic people are better at reading body language – difficult to do on the Internet – whereas non-empathetic people are less self-aware and more apt to be needing approval from others. As Kaitlin Phillips points out in “The Future of Feeling”, social technology may offer to superficially link people, but it doesn’t foster genuine human connection. Reading about tragic world events may produce sympathy, but rarely does it lead to true empathy.

As empathy declines and our world becomes ever more divisive, it is easy to get discouraged. Some of the best advice for times like these comes from the late Fred Rogers, the indisputable master at explaining difficult and scary things to children. “Look for the helpers”, Fred would quote his mother as saying.

One such helper is Dylan Marron, an actor/activist who is combating debate, anger and hurt feelings with listening and understanding. Dylan’s podcast “Conversations with People Who Hate Me” is his attempt to turn up the empathy level. His approach is to reach out to people who have expressed anger on the Internet and engage them in a conversation where debating is to be replaced by listening and perhaps agreeing to disagree. The powerful takeaway is this – empathy is not endorsement.

Over forty years had passed when my wife’s younger brother and I went to the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara to see the ninth and supposed final movie of the Stars Wars saga. The Arlington (opened in 1931) is another historic site for movie-goers. The sound system, special effects, and the films characters were no longer revolutionary. Movie theaters themselves were losing the entertainment battle to sophisticated home systems and streaming services.

While the Internet was hosting a lively debate over how the Star Wars plot clues accumulated over four decades would finally be resolved, it was also beginning to take note of a little-known city in central China named Wuhan. Three months later, a global pandemic has changed everything.

Cultural change is a sluggish thing, but from time to time the events of history can provoke a sudden shift. Movie theaters were already succumbing to technology, and it is difficult to imagine ever again paying premium prices and crowding into a room to watch a film, no matter how historic the venue. In a similar way, technology is leading us down a path of isolation where discerning the feelings of others is ever more challenging. It appears that empathy may also be a victim of technology and the times.

I have a very bad feeling about this.


Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetWorkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara


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