The Empathic Civilisation and Social Networks

Empathy like all true meaning is a little hard to pin down. As with beauty empathy is also hard to define exactly. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts came up with a very specific way of thinking about biological empathy. I find it an interesting thought the extending of blood tie empathy to humanity as a whole. I disagree with the broad assertions being made that empathy is strong enough to build a society on but I found the connections between social networks the need to belong and empathy fascinating.

Our need to belong is one of these influences that effect humanity as a whole. Not strictly bound but influenced by our biology to be predisposed to certain things. People need to be loved and socially accepted;  “need to belong” This need to belong among human beings is a “fundamental human motivation that is something all human beings possess … to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships” (Baumeister and Leary 1995). Its been said the need to belong supersedes our own well-being. That is to say we will put ourselves into clearly negative situation just to belong.

If I’m understanding the RSA video correctly they feel the human need to belong went from family to tribe and as the technology shrunk the world our empathy grew. The video used the example of Hati and the use of Twitter and YouTube as an example of how far our empathy extends. To me it feels they are stating the larger our social networks get the larger the number of people we will feel empathy for. Are we to the point where global family like networks are possible? According to Friedman we are, he feels technology has leveled the playing field, our world is now one big community. The gap in accessing new technologies could be the only real barrier left to get to the point the RSA suggests.

If McLuhan is right and technology is an extension of our biological self, then social networks could have the ability to create family like bonds on a global scale. Lets make a leap of faith and say its possible to create a global family. By necessity the bonds of this new family would need to be weak. Strong bonds on a global scale are simply a numerical impossibility. How much sway would weak bond empathy have and could a social network connect people enough to encourage empathic sociability?

Play entire clip with sound…

Empathy and its ability to influence our actions is something I strongly belive is real. Humans can and do feel the pain or joy of others. However there is little proof that these feelings are strong enough to alter other impulses. In far to many cases the direct blood bonds of family fail to impart enough empathy to keep humans from hurting the ones they love. Civil war, family feuds and abuse all exist, empathy for others is not always enough. The specific scene in the above clip where the camera cuts to the crowed and the music changes and we see people in tears did you feel different? Did the tears give the video more impact? If you followed the artist on Twitter would that have made a difference? Why do videos of people getting hurt get tagged as funny? How can movies like Jackass exist if empathy is so strong? I hate leaving things with more questions than answers but in this case I only have questions.

About ebinkert

I've decided to give up trying to be informative. Now I think I will just ask questions.
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3 Responses to The Empathic Civilisation and Social Networks

  1. Zach Olson says:

    Used this video as part of a segment on Empathy in my comp class. Didn’t get the best feedback and thinking from my freshmen, but they were pretty new to the whole “thinking” thing having been quite…ahem..fresh.

    I also cited it as part of a paper on Globalization and Humanism in Moby Dick. I feel that the seeds of a lot of these ideas are in the novel. Basically, since we’ve been able to bring cultures everywhere into contact with each other these things have been happening. Technology just makes them happen faster and more broadly. I don’t need to go on a year long whaling voyage to meet people from the South Pacific. I can hop on twitter.

    Technology widens our social sphere, and ideally our empathetic sphere widens equally. The key is getting meaningful interaction. I think web anonymity is part of it. I have a hard time thinking of someone as a whole person rather than just an idea in a blog. I need to spend enough time with them to get some identity from them. Images help. Stories help. Ethos isn’t just a rhetorical proof; in a lot of ways it’s tied to your character and persona, and if I’m going to respect you and empathize with you I need to see that you’re really human.

    I think the second video would be more poignant if you followed the artist on twitter, but only if their twitter account made you feel like you were forming a closer bond with them.

    Basically, Jeremy Rifkin hits the nail on the head when he says that technology connects us with more people and allows possibility for a wider sense of human empathy, but this is nothing new, it’s broader, easier, and faster than old methods of contacting others (sailing ships, telegraph, letters, etc.). If you’re a true humanist, then you don’t need YouTube and twitter to love your fellow humans.

  2. edwin rutsch says:

    My I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    Let’s Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion

  3. Pingback: weblogs and wikis week 2: an empathetic repurposing « Morgan's Log

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