Technology plays a huge part in modern society, and it’s unlikely that it’s going away anytime soon. We might comment on or complain about some of the phone addiction out there, but I’m willing to bet that we also wouldn’t actually trade our smartphones and go back to the landline days (I wouldn’t at least, that was not convenient). But if we’re going to accept and keep that sort of technology around we should be open to learning about what it does to us.
Cell phone usage can make us less empathetic
Empathy is essentially the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, and it’s one of the major things that separates humans from the AI designs that are practically human. Computers are capable of replicating many aspects of the human experience, and often they’re analytically smarter than we are. But as of now, computers can’t come anywhere close to the uniquely human experience of empathy. We don’t want to lose that moving forward since it truly is a strength. If anything, it seems like people should be becoming more empathetic to start spreading more of the love that we so desperately need in the world, so potentially losing out on it is a frightening concept.
When we joke or worry about robots taking over the world, part of that concern comes from the knowledge that they don’t have empathy. That makes their behavior less predictable from an emotional standpoint and increases the concern that they might turn on you at any moment. The film Ex Machina dives head-first into this topic. In the movie, a programmer is given the mission to figure out whether an extremely intelligent and realistic humanoid robot is truly capable of thought and consciousness. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that things get pretty complicated. Unnerving, if you will.
Investor/business mogul, Elon Musk, has stated that “Artificial intelligence is our biggest existential threat,” and that we need to monitor what we’re doing with it to avoid doing “something very foolish.” He started the non-profit OpenAI with the intention of developing AI in a way that’s safe and beneficial to humans. The concept of giving too much power to someone or something that lacks empathy is simply dangerous, and where we have the opportunity to avoid that, we should.
MIT clinical psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle has discussed this concept of losing empathy in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. She says that
it’s not some silly causal effect, that if you text you have less empathy. It’s that you’re not getting practice in the stuff that gives you empathy.
So basically, when you’re texting instead of talking in person you get less practice with in person communication. Isn’t that why people avoid speaking on the phone when texting is an option? Total avoidance. People tend to avoid confrontation in situations where the stakes are high. There’s this idea that not getting involved is a way to avoid giving or receiving pain, and most of us like to feel good and be perceived as “nice.”
Avoiding conflict can feel like an active choice that actually ends up being a passive move.
It’s not really taking into account what’s best for either party, which leaves things a bit more up in the air. But it’s easier to rationalize (or totally ignore) the potential outcome of avoidance when you can’t see or hear someone’s emotions, which is the case in texting. You can theoretically take as much time as you want to craft a text response so there isn’t the element of being put on the spot when reacting.
One example that Sherry elaborated on was the good old apology:
A face-to-face apology is such a classic place where we learn empathy. If you’re apologizing to me, I soften because I get to see that you’re genuinely upset — you get to see that I have compassion for you. But if you type ‘I’m sorry’ and hit send, nothing happens.
Adding to all that, there’s also the increased likelihood that words get misunderstood over text, thanks to that lack of emotional connection. A lot of us have had the experience of reading a text with a period at the end and being like “whoa, intense.” It feels unnatural to the casual texter despite the fact that it’s been totally normal in any other case of the written word for centuries. But that’s one of the most simple examples, try typing out a paragraph in a heated situation without accidentally saying something that could be taken a few different ways.
Communicating is one of the most important things in relationships, whether it’s romantic, work, friends, or standing in line at the post office. Communication is the only way we get through the day if you really stop to think about it.
Sherry recommends that we have “sacred spaces” where usage of phones and other technology devices are not allowed. That might mean resisting the urge to check your social media at every streetlight and using that time to reflect on the day instead, or it might mean making the bedroom a no phone zone to encourage conversation and connection with our lovers or simply ourselves. Sherry warns that multitasking is bad and that people should be turning to each other, not to their phones.
One could argue that the entire basis of life revolves around relationships, and therefore communication as well.
Our biology encourages the sexuality to keep our species going, and most things that we think or do are relevant to this. We’re pretty dependent on each other whether we like to admit it or not. If getting outside of our comfort zones and doing more talking in person is the best way to make sure that our emotional response system stays strong, then it seems like it’s something that should be done. Our gift of empathy is depending on it.