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Empathy: Digital, Done, and Dusted

20/05/2016 12:27 | Updated 20 May 2016

A petition for a local bar. A video of footballer visiting refugees on the Jordan-Syria border. News of another plane going missing. A petition to reduce tuition fees. A post about potentially fatal dog food. News of the death of a musician. "23 photos of animals and their parents that will melt your heart".

These are just a selection form the content of my Facebook newsfeed this morning.

Like most people, I often have a look before I start work. Unlike most people though, I am becoming increasingly aware of how damaging this can be when it becomes to emotional sensitivity and burnout.

We now live in a world where everything happens now. And you don't need media theorist Douglas Rushkoff and his wonderful book 'Present Shock' to tell you that. Everything is stuck in the present - including us. It's what Rushkoff calls 'Presentism' and it's doing more harm than good, both his words and mine.

In his book, Rushkoff talks off narrative collapse, and death of a linear narrative, in what he christens a "postnarrative age". Meaning that everything - from adverts to news stories to TV shows - needs to reach out and grab any eyeball time and attention it can with each and every passing moment.

Now, besides mourning the age-old narrative structure that comes with every good story and myth, there are deeper and darker problems with all this.

Take, for example, the simple fact that the reason traditional narrative - beginning, middle, and end - works for us humans is that our own personal narrative follows that trajectory.

Chuck us into the 'everything is now', post-narrative sphere that we exist in and we just can't keep up.

And our emotions can't either.

In this week's New Scientist, there's a fascinating article about the dangers of 'empathy burnout' - a desensitisation of our ability to empathise with fellow human beings after a period of over-stimulation.

Like most psychological phenomena, it follows the basic tenet that neuronal communication is based on. Activation leads to a period of desensitisation, allowing limited resources (charged ions for nerve cells) to build back up again. And our ability to empathise - which is made possible by our brain and thus, the neurons that make it up - is no different.

Because of this, we have a finite 'store'. It's an essential survival mechanism for pretty much everything our brains do. Their amazing abilities coming, in part, from being able to limit, filter, and curate both what we take in, what we focus on, and how we interact with our environment.

Take our senses as an example. If we heard, saw, and smelled everything in front of us at all time - the world would be a very different (and unmanageable) place. In this same way, if we empathised with every mother, child, and uncle - we would struggle to remain focused on anything at all.

With every 'support this', 'sign this', and 'share this' just one swipe away, it's impossible to deny that the incessant need for empathy might be doing more harm than good. Add these empathetic drivers to the TV screens and newspapers filled with images of warzones, beheadings, and dead refugees - and the situation gets all the more dire.

Especially when one considers that most of this is background noise. We see the pictures, we read stories, but we don't connect. We're in autopilot, running on subconscious machinery - meaning the empathy used happens without conscious recognition.

Could it be that the one thing our modern world needs most right now is under threat from itself? Essentially - are we becoming less empathetic by being too empathetic? It all seems a bit counterintuitive when one puts it like that but peel back the layers a bit and maybe not so.

Empathy is arguably one of the - if not, the - most crucial factors to the success of Homo sapiens as a species. Without it, we would not be able to form the social bonds that allowed us to fast-track evolution through culture and communication.

But whilst it has served us to no end in the preceding centuries, it was created and has been fine-tuned in a world where our need to empathise was limited to a small cohort of family, tribe members, and eventually, bigger communities.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and over half of us are now living in cities - detached from-yet-drowning in fellow human beings - with the machines in our pockets screaming (or pinging) out for our undivided attention. And with that, draining the limited reservoir of empathy each and every one of us has, until we have no more.

It's no wonder we've all become narcissistic, cripplingly anxious, individualistic capitalists - we're stuck in a narrowed world, blinded to all of those around us, unable to feel anything of their experience. And why? Because we're filling our time trawling endless scrolls of this, that, and the other, without realising it's left us all numb and incapable of actually feeling anything at all.

And whilst it's not the singular cause for it - it's not a coincidence that it's this digital age where we're on the brink of seeing a man like Donald Trump potentially becoming the President of the United States. It's in this digital age that we're seeing a rise in right-wing nationalist movements. It's in this digital age that we're seeing a potential breakdown of the European Union - all hinged on a emotionally charged, us-against-them, narrow-minded, immigration-driven vote.

Without realising it, our limits on what we can, and choose to, empathise with are becoming narrower and narrower. Why? Because there just isn't enough of it to go around.

And not only that, it's also no longer under our control. Instead, it's increasingly being put into the hands of the ethically questionable men (welcome to the masculine world of big tech) running the companies that now act as our new sources. Choosing what it is that makes it onto on Twitter and Facebook feeds.

Rupert Murdoch may not be involved but his younger, Silicon Valley dwelling, sandal wearing, new age hippie, tech savvy brother most certainly is.

But what happens next?

Like so many of our modern day problems, it's that disconnect between the world we have evolved in, and the world we now find ourselves in. A disconnect that haunts us in so many walks of life.

Can we keep up? Who knows?

But if we don't - there's trouble on the horizon. Individualism, nationalism, narcissism - these are -isms that breed nothing good. These are the -isms that breed hatred. These are the -isms that breed war.

Reclaim your empathy. Choose where to use it. It's gifted us with speech, culture, and ability to bond. And unless we do something about it, we'll end up losing it (or at least, losing control of it) in this post-narrative, presentist society.

In the words of Rushkoff; "It's not about how digital technology changes us, but how we change ourselves and one another now that we live so digitally."

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