This is the second of two articles adapted from my new book, Can You Hear Me?, due out from Harvard in October.  

In my last post, I argued that we humans are social beings. We don’t do well when deprived of our fellow humans in the virtual world. The technology deprives us of something surprisingly important:  emotional subtext.  We need to feed the unconscious, and we starve it at our peril as employers, as employees, and as humans. The virtual world is boring for our unconscious minds. We need face-to-face.

I explored the expression of empathy in this context.  I asked, given that we can increase people’s empathy with applications to the physical senses, what implications does that have for manipulating people’s perceptions of empathy online?

A few principles are in order here. Our physical and mental experiences are deeply interconnected. We’re only beginning to understand this relationship.That early understanding alone should make us wary of the virtual world.

Our attitudes, emotions, and intentions are mostly unconscious. When you make me rub my finger on rough sandpaper, I become more empathetic, but not because I’ve consciously thought something like, “Oh, that sandpaper is rough; therefore, I should be more sympathetic to others’ pain.” It’s rather an unconscious and emotional connection. And it’s more powerful precisely because we’re not conscious of it.

The physical experience opens us up to the mental, rather than the other way around. At one level, that’s obvious; we are physical beings, after all. But at a deeper level, the connection between the physical and the emotional tells us something profound about how the mind works, something counterintuitive and puzzling.

We embody our emotions. We move with attraction, with revulsion, with happiness, with sorrow. And only once we begin to move do we become aware of and understand what we’re thinking. We move first and understand second.

In addition, our attitudes, emotions, and intentions are profoundly communal and tribal. We experience empathy as our attitude toward others and as others’ attitudes toward us. We like to think of ourselves as self-directed, individual, and conscious. What we’re learning is that humans are instead connected, unconscious, and tribal beings. That’s our empathy. And that’s what is missing in the virtual world.

The entire virtual world was supposed to increase our interconnectedness, but instead it has isolated us more because our emotional engines don’t work as well in cyberspace. In teenagers, there is a direct correlation between mobile phone use and depression. The more time they spend on the phone, the more depressed they are. We need to learn new communications approaches to the digital-real world we live in today.

What might those look like?  To date, the only ways to improve the digital world that people have thought up seem to involve cyber-dieting.  Parents limit their teens’ use of cell phones and restrict screen time in young children.  That’s a start, but it’s one that limits the poisonous intake rather than change the food itself.  Is there anything we can do to improve the digital experience itself in order to restore some of the emotional richness that has been removed?

That’s where Silicon Valley and everyone else should be focusing their attention.  We don’t need more digital widgets; we need more human digital widgets.  Who will invent those for us to keep us from becoming permanently alienated from ourselves?



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