Those of us who are not digital natives and remember a time before the internet became so central to society probably also remember the old-school ways of communication: phone calls, snail mail, face-to-face, etc. We now have the ability to do all of that electronically, and that’s a great thing: family members can Skype or FaceTime, students can take online courses, people can have therapy sessions or see a doctor via apps, and friends can have watch parties on Netflix while social distancing to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
But who here has ever gotten into an argument on social media, whether with family, friends, or total strangers? Who here has gotten irrationally angry at content that you come across on the pages of friends and family? Who here as had to block people from social media accounts due to online trolling?
Chances are, you have.
In The Future of Feeling, Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips posits that these behaviors are a symptom of how technology is chipping away at our ability to empathize. She does touch on some corrective approaches toward building a healthier relationship with social media — namely, limit yourself and don’t get caught up in pointless online fights — but much of the book is about how technology can actually be used to build a more empathetic world.
For instance, virtual reality can be used to expose people to situations that they might not have ever thought about. She discusses one example that I was already aware of: VR that allows the user to experience what it’s like to walk through a crowd of aggressive protesters into an abortion clinic. Another VR program allows users to experience the microaggressions of what it’s like to grow up as a black man in America (ex: going to a job interview and having the employer assume that the white man next to you is the one who went to Harvard, not you).
Of course, there’s the downside of VR: the user — even if they’re emotionally affected by the experience — can simply leave the VR experience and carry on with their lives, whereas, for instance, a person of color cannot take off their skin color and lead a life free of racist microaggressions. Technology, including artificial intelligence, is also going to be as flawed as the person who made it despite the best of intentions, so any blind spots regarding race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomics will appear in these programs.
The books gives readers some interesting things to think about, but some of it does get redundant. It often felt like the book was trying to be two different things: was it about people’s lack of empathy within apps and social media and steps that could be taken to correct that? Or was it about building empathy through the use of new technology? I also listened to it on audiobook, and the narration (by the author) left much to be desired.