How Technology Killed Empathy

Uploaded 5/8/2012, approx. 3 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin. I am the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited.

Whatever happened to empathy, where have solidarity, charity and compassion gone?

A series of earth-shattering social, economic and technological trends converged to render empathy a tedious nuisance best avoided.

Foremost among these trends is the emergence of modern technology. Technology had and has a devastating effect on the survival and functioning of core social units such as the community, neighborhood and, most crucially, the family.

With the introduction of modern, fast transportation and telecommunication, it was no longer possible to confine the members of the family to the household, to the village, or even to the neighborhood. The industrial and later information revolutions splintered the classical nuclear family and scattered its members as they outsourced the family's core functions.

Today, feeding, education, and entertainment, which used to be provided by the family, are actually provided by external suppliers. And this process is ongoing. Interactions with the outside world are being minimized. People conduct their lives more and more indoors.

They communicate with other people, their biological and original family included, via telecommunications devices and the Internet. They spend most of their time, work and create the cyber world. Their true and really only home is their website or page on the social network, du jour. Their only reliably permanent address is their email address. Their enduring, albeit as such, friendships are co-chatchers on Facebook. They work from home, flexibly and independently of others. They customize their cultural consumption using 500-channel televisions based on video-on-demand technology.

No two people are watching the same program at the same time. Hermeneutic and mutually exclusive universes will be the end result of this process. People will be linked by very few common experiences within the framework of virtual communities.

They will hold their world with them as they move about. The miniaturization of storage devices will permit people to carry whole libraries of data and entertainment in their suitcase or backpack or even pocket.

They will no longer need or resort to physical interactions.

Consider for instance the issue of screens. Screens have been with us for centuries now. Paintings are screens. Windows are screens. Yet the very nature of screens has undergone a revolutionary transformation in the last two decades or so. All the screens that preceded the PDA's personal digital assistants and the smartphones were inclusive of reality. They were end screens.

Where you watched them, you could not avoid, you could not screen out data emanating from your physical environment. These screens were screen in reality and that was the prevalent modus operandi. So this is the first type of screens. End screens. Screens in reality.

Consider for instance the cinema, television and the personal computer. Even when entangled in the flow of information provided by these machines, you were still fully exposed to and largely aware of your surroundings.

The screens of the past were one step removed. There was always a considerable physical distance between the user and the device and the field of vision extended to encompass copious peripheral input from the environment.

Now consider the iPhone or the digital camera. Their screens are tiny but they monopolize the field of vision and they exclude the world by design. The physical distance between retina and screen has shrunk to the point of energy. 3D television with its specialty eyeglasses and total immersion is merely the culmination of this trend. Their utter removal of reality from the viewer's experience.

Modern screens are therefore aren't screens. You either watch the screen or you observe reality. You cannot do both.

Modern technology allows us to reach out but rarely to really touch. It substitutes kaleidoscopic, brief and shallow interactions for long, meaningful and deep relationships.

Our ability is to empathize and to collaborate with each other unlike muscles. They require frequent exercise.

Gradually we are being denied the opportunity to flex these muscles and thus we empathize less and less. We collaborate more fitfully and inefficiently. We act more narcissistically and anti-socially. Functioning society is rendered atomized and anomic by technology.

Empathy is the foundation of both altruism and collaboration. Thus, while empathy does consume scarce resources, it confers important evolutionary advantages, both from the individual's point of view, cooperation, and from the species' altruism.

Yet we are witnessing a marked decline in both the ubiquity and the utility of empathy. The decline in physical violence is not a good proxy to a supposed rise in empathy. Aggression and narcissism merely mutated into non-physical forms. These are enabled by techn

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