This is an article in a series of postings that explore how two new infrastructures (mobile communications and internet), and the affordances they bring, shift our perception of different cultural categories and concepts. Today: Shifts in empathy.

Empathy in a carton by Geoff Jones

The people closest to you
People are social animals. We love being connected to others. And through the ages we felt most connected to those directly around us. We feel closest to our family and to the community we are rooted in. A very tribal thing really, and deeply human. When our world became larger, we stayed close to our ‘tribe’, and if we happened to move to another location we would build our new connections right there. Because there was usually no way to maintain connection to your ‘old’ tribe.

How tight these connections can be (but also how suffocating at times) is demonstrated by stories not far back into history. In the early 1980’s I met an old woman in a small rural village at the Dutch coast. She had been living there for over 60 years. She originally came from a likewise small village about 15km to the west, called Dirksland. In the village she spent most of her life she was still known as ‘her from Dirksland’ after 60 years. So closely knit was local community that she could be seen as an outsider after more than half a century.

My paternal grandparents (both long gone alas) were part of a farming community until the mid ’60s, having lived there for about 40 years. This region until WWII was a largely moneyless society, where services and products were traded within a community geared to mutual help, trust and survival, called ‘noaberschap’ which simplest translation is ‘good neighborship’ but it runs deep with lots of meaning and tradition (at my grandmothers funeral when I thanked both ‘noabers’ and ‘neighbors’ seperately for their support of her, the audience murmured in approval of making that distinction as a ‘city boy’). When, after retiring from their farm, my grandparents moved to a village 8km away they explicitly kept their bonds to their old ‘noaberschap’, and also entered into the ‘noaberschap’ in their new village. It was highly spoken of that they were keeping up their obligations to two of these closely knit communities.  Because it is hard work, and it costs a lot of energy to be emotionally in sync with more than those directly around you. Your circle of empathy encompasses your close connections, your community. Within that circle you are accepted as a human being, and you accept others as human beings. Outside of your circle of empathy live ‘hoi barbaroi’, the strangers, the dehumanized ones.

However we have seen large changes in the radius of our circle of empathy in our recent history (19th and 20th century).

Students at Rottterdam University in conversation

Empathy and the nation state
In the 19th century the nation state as we know it came of age. Industrialization saw a massive rise in urbanisation, uprooting millions from their once tight rural communities. City neighbourhoods replaced them in part, but there they lived with people from all over the nation. They got to know people from every region of the country as human beings. Railroads, and daily newspapers shortened the distances within a nation. Making it possible to personally feel as part of a nation, to widen your circle of empathy to include all those within its borders.

Empathy and the internationalized world
The 20th century brought the entire world into all our scope of thinking. Airlines and the mass media shortened global distances and the time it took for global news to reach us. Cars and highways, and mass tourism let millions experience other countries first hand. But in most of our interaction with the wider world the nation state was our shorthand label for dealing with that world. We went to Germany or Austria for our summer holidays. Others to Spain, Italy, and France. To see another country, another nation. And when we were in those other countries we were Dutch, British, German, we were seen as representatives of our nation. When disaster struck somewhere around the world we extended our sympathy to nations, and responded with the nation state as middle man. Help Iran after the earth quake, Bangladesh after the flood, Egypt after the drought, Rwanda after the genocide. We built international structures by nations entering into agreements, like the UN and the EC. International and ‘mass’ are the key words of that era. We experienced the world through the middle man of nationhood. We recognized the world was inhabited by people, but our circle of empathy did not include those people.

New Infrastructure, You Are its Endpoint
Mobile communications and the internet are unlike other infrastructures that came before. They do not have a geographic location as endpoint. Railway stations, airports, harbours, mailboxes, old fashioned telephones, they all have a fixed location. When I need to reach you by train, plane, ship, mail, or landline phone, I need to know where you are. So I can put an address on my letter, dial the correct area code and phone number, or take a train to the station closest to you. Not so with internet and mobile communications. There you are the endpoint, your own address. I do not need to know where you are. When end points are geographical we think geographic. “I am flying to Portugal, to meet Pedro at SHiFT08”. When end points are people, I think people. “I am calling Pedro, to ask about SHiFT09”. But he may be anywhere when he picks up the phone or reads my e-mail message. That is why most mobile conversations still start with the question “Where are you?” Because we are still getting accustomed to this new reality that we simply don’t know where the other is, and haven’t realized yet that most of the time it is really irrelevant.

Lunch break conversations in Vancouver

Networked World of Globalized Individuals
Mobile communications and internet connect the world just as trains,planes, mail and landline phones did before. But they do so without geography, and the need for using the nation state as an intermediate or as a shorthand label is rapidly diminishing. Until two years ago name badges on international conferences would also contain your country of origin. None of the international conferences I attend(ed) in 2008 mention country anymore. Because it stopped being meaningful. (And I suspect it wasn’t a conscious decision to let country off the badges, but that it simply did not occur to anyone to put it on the badges). In a lineair world or situation you need hierarchy to organize things and having nations as the intermediate aggregate level to make sense of the world helps. In a complex world however the most abstract and the most practical level actually touch, and the individual and global level are connected directly. There having the default filter and aggregation on national level obscures your view of events. It keeps you from accessing the original source, the raw data, the original people involved. So while the nation state helped us to reach a global view, internet and mobile communications now allow us to see those nations as an artificial construct needed in a time when we did not have the technology to understand, and mentally could not understand a nation as made up of millions of individual people, each with their own character and qualities that got filtered out in the national aggregate. Now however we can. Our infrastructure now makes individual human beings not only visible but also accessible globally. The movement against globalization was largely a movement against nation states cutting trade deals without looking at individuals. Industry’s was a heartless globalization, it lacked empathy. No wonder lots of people saw it as dehumanizing. Our new infrastructures are working a new globalization however, a globalization of individuals. And it includes empathy as a prime ingredient.

Empathy in a Networked World
In a globally connected world, where those connections are between individuals and not nations, we can take in the news of the world from individual people. When there were forest fires in California, I did not hear about it first from mass media, I received a smoke filled picture in my e-mail from somebody I know, that he took from his balcony that morning. When bombs exploded in the London Underground, I called up a friend in the city to hear if he was ok. When trying to get a feeling of how the election of Barack Obama was received in the US (after urging all my American contacts and friends to go vote earlier), I did not check the headlines, I watched video of people celebrating on YouTube, read personal stories in blogs, read Twitter messages, and watched pictures in Flickr. Stuff people simply directly shared from their mobile phones. There is a big difference between a headline ‘US celebrates election results’ and seeing the personal photos of 2 dozen people celebrating on the side walks of LA, or a video of 40 or so college students singing the US national anthem in front of the White House and partying. I don’t know all these people but they share a slice of their life. Which makes them human beings to me, and makes their story useful to make sense of the world around me. This type of directly connecting does not just apply to news, it applies to all of our exchanges. The son of a colleague is a longtime player of World of Warcraft (WoW). One of the people in his Guild (the tribes you form in WoW) died (in reality). All he knew about this guy was from the exchanges in WoW, but the mourning was real. They held a service for him in WoW.

Does this mean that all 6.5 billion people in the world now make up my circle of empathy? No. But they potentially do. Because as soon as I have direct interaction with them they do. We are forming new villages, new communities just as tight and tangible as the ones my grandparents lived in, but they’re globalized villages, where the people that make up those villages are spread around the globe. It allows me to be firmly rooted both in local community as well as in a globalized community. Our new infrastructures make direct interaction with people anywhere possible, and make group forming very easy. Because of it our circle of empathy is shifting.