“Even a Silent Phone Disconnects Us”

This is a very good op-ed by Sherry Turkle, a professor in the program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT, on the assault of technology in our lives. An excerpt:

Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

But this was the key paragraph for me:

Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.

What are we to do? Sherry Turkle provides a few suggestions (among them, practicing unitasking):

One start toward reclaiming conversation is to reclaim solitude. Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself. Slow down sufficiently to make this possible. And make a practice of doing one thing at a time. Think of unitasking as the next big thing. In every domain of life, it will increase performance and decrease stress.

But doing one thing at a time is hard, because it means asserting ourselves over what technology makes easy and what feels productive in the short term. Multitasking comes with its own high, but when we chase after this feeling, we pursue an illusion. Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking.

What kinds of things are you doing to bring you closer to those around you? How do you practice maintaining (or building) empathy for others?

The Stanford Commencement Address by Bill and Melinda Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates jointly gave a commencement address at Stanford University earlier this month on June 15, 2014. The full transcript is here, but I wanted to highlight a few notable passages:

Melinda and I have described some devastating scenes. But we want to make the strongest case we can for the power of optimism. Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering. But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can’t help them. You will never change their world.

And that brings me to what I see as a paradox.

The world of science and technology is driving phenomenal innovations – and Stanford stands at the center of that, creating new companies, prize-winning professors, ingenious software, miracle drugs, and amazing graduates. We’re on the verge of mind-blowing breakthroughs in what human beings can do for each other. And people here are really excited about the future.

At the same time, if you ask people across the United States, “Is the future going to be better than the past?” most people will say: “No. My kids will be worse off than I am.” They think innovation won’t make the world better for them or for their children.

So who’s right?

The people who say innovation will create new possibilities and make the world better?

…or…

The people who see a trend toward inequality and a decline in opportunity and don’t think innovation will change that?

The pessimists are wrong in my view, but they’re not crazy. If technology is purely market-driven and we don’t focus innovation on the big inequities, then we could have amazing inventions that leave the world even more divided.

The key driver to make notable change is building empathy:

If our optimism doesn’t address the problems that affect so many of our fellow human beings, then our optimism needs more empathy. If empathy channeled our optimism, we would see the poverty and the disease and the poor schools, we would answer with our innovations, and we would surprise the pessimists.

The question is: how do we build and develop empathy in others?

I like how Melinda closes the address, saying that young graduates shouldn’t be in a rush to change the world:

You don’t have to rush. You have careers to launch, debts to pay, spouses to meet and marry. That’s enough for now.

But in the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you’ll come to see suffering that will break your heart.

When it happens, and it will, don’t turn away from it; turn toward it.

That is the moment when change is born.

When Empathy Fails

Paul Bloom’s essay in The New Yorker titled “The Baby in the Well” has some excellent arguments on how empathy can backfire. To me, these two passages were most significant/interesting:

On many issues, empathy can pull us in the wrong direction. The outrage that comes from adopting the perspective of a victim can drive an appetite for retribution. (Think of those statutes named for dead children: Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Caylee’s Law.) But the appetite for retribution is typically indifferent to long-term consequences. In one study, conducted by Jonathan Baron and Ilana Ritov, people were asked how best to punish a company for producing a vaccine that caused the death of a child. Some were told that a higher fine would make the company work harder to manufacture a safer product; others were told that a higher fine would discourage the company from making the vaccine, and since there were no acceptable alternatives on the market the punishment would lead to more deaths. Most people didn’t care; they wanted the company fined heavily, whatever the consequence.

This dynamic regularly plays out in the realm of criminal justice. In 1987, Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had been released on furlough from the Northeastern Correctional Center, in Massachusetts, raped a woman after beating and tying up her fiancé. The furlough program came to be seen as a humiliating mistake on the part of Governor Michael Dukakis, and was used against him by his opponents during his run for President, the following year. Yet the program may have reduced the likelihood of such incidents. In fact, a 1987 report found that the recidivism rate in Massachusetts dropped in the eleven years after the program was introduced, and that convicts who were furloughed before being released were less likely to go on to commit a crime than those who were not. The trouble is that you can’t point to individuals who weren’t raped, assaulted, or killed as a result of the program, just as you can’t point to a specific person whose life was spared because of vaccination.

Read the rest here.