Saturday, January 16, 2016

Empathy Technology

Whenever my father would ask me what I did in my graduate studies, I would answer, “Empathy technology.” I would then explicitly explain to him what I meant.  When he would then relate my research interest to other people, he would explain it as follows: I was designing computer therapists that could read your mind and help you out.  This was not what I meant by empathy technology and this fact was something that I reiterated to him every time we talked about my research, but somehow I could never quite get that point across.  
It wasn’t that my dad was a dumb guy.  He was very smart and well accomplished. In fact, he ran a company that made both hardware and software for toll collection equipment.  In business, he could haggle, affirm his position, and wrangle the best deal in his sleep.  But he never understood the social aspect of digital media.  
One day he asked me about Facebook.  It was something that he had heard of from his employees and wanted to know more of. So I thought the best way to show him what Facebook was would be to open an account for him. He had an e-mail account through him company.  It was one that he never checked, but he had it. So, we started, filled out all the forms, and then the step came to add friends, people he might know.  “Hey, dad, ok, let’s add your friends.” And he refused.  He didn’t want to. He just wanted to see what Facebook was about without adding old friends from high school or from the neighborhood.  He already knew about his friends.  He was seventy-something at the time and he figured if he hadn’t kept in contact, well there was no mystery to be discovered in that which he had left behind.  I didn’t argue with him.  Maybe he was right.
Figure 1. Father and daughter (1980)

However, in this day and age, with millennials and gen-exers posting everything online, we have lost something very intimate in the way we now engage with our fellow human beings.  And that is what I study.    
Empathy technology, despite the technology part of the term, exists as a channel between people. I conceptualize it as: technology that helps people feel empathy for other people.  The difficult part of the definition comes in when we try to define empathy in terms of technology and specifically in terms of computer-mediated communication (CMC). What is empathy when you are talking about a chatroom?  What does empathy mean when you are talking about a YouTube video viewed by a stranger?  We don’t know yet.  Some researchers have looked at what it means from a narrow perspective, but, of course, researchers have to look at empathy from a narrow perspective or they would never be able to complete their data analysis.  Except for certain circumstances that allow for following a group of people around for their entire lives, we can’t know the full depths of how people connect online in an empirical way. We have anecdotes about people connecting with others online and becoming fast friends, but the N is small in these cases.

I want to study how we can help people empathize with out-group members and I want to study this in an empirical manner.  There should be no question as to why.  But in case there is, I have three answers: War, racism, and narcissism.  If I can help to end any of those occurrences and save lives, both metaphorical and actually, by inducing empathy for others, including members of marginalized groups, than I would hope that my father would understand that empathy technology, as I see it, may be more powerful than computer therapists. Though, of course, they would be pretty cool, too.