Does Digitization Decrease Empathy?

James McWilliams recently asked whether the digitization of communications decreases empathy, and thus potentially our empathy with other humans and animals.  He talks about e-mail between students and professors, “butchered” grammar in e-mail being used to substitute for the student and the professor actually having a conversation, and wonders where this is all headed. Yes, the new media enable vegans to promote their cause more effectively (Earthlings), but it also enables the bad guys to push their case with equal or greater effectiveness.

The effects of digitization on the human psyche are complex.  Understanding these effects is not helped by the fact that the forces pushing digitization are primarily geared towards promoting economic growth, not increasing either empathy or knowledge. So we are likely to see a lot of digital encouragement to buy.  During a political season with lots of PAC money floating around, we will see a lot of digital encouragement to hate.

Digital communication is new.  It took society hundreds of years to adjust fully to Gutenberg’s printing press.  Digitization introduces a whole host of unanticipated problems, the effects of which are not immediately apparent — spam, identity theft, password maintenance, internet addiction, and others.

Not only are the effects of digitization unknown, but the medium itself is constantly changing.  I haven’t changed my basic digital needs that much over the past decade, but I constantly need to upgrade.  Increasing complexity in an already-new medium makes it doubly difficult to identify and deal with problems.  We do not know if this escalating complexity will spin out of control at some point, as the number of problems introduced exceed the original issue which digitization was supposed to address.

The problems digitization introduces are more apparent to the digital immigrants (those who grew up in a world without e-mail or computers) than to the natives, who grew up with computers.  Because the immigrants are sometimes not as adept at the latest “bleeding edge” technology, this sometimes comes across as technical ineptness, but this isn’t always the case.  Sometimes it’s because there are actual issues here which the natives don’t see as well.

Finally, the digital age depends on a highly networked society which is itself in the first stages of collapse due to resource issues.  Veganism has a practical application here; these resource shortages suggest we need to live simpler lives, and a simpler diet would be an excellent place to start.

We already live in a world with a sharp digital divide. Large numbers of people in the world exist without computers.  So far the population with ready access to computers has been increasing, but resource shortages and consequent economic collapse could create more people actually leaving the world of computers, and without any experience of what we sometimes refer to as “the real world.” Resource shortages are bound to affect the grid at some point.  In India on July 30 and 31 this happened and over 600 million people were taken off line.  People need to pay more attention to this issue.

Digitization affects not just our ability to empathize with humans and animals, but all aspects of our central nervous system, such as judgment and perception.  It does so in unpredictable ways which are typically not analyzed very closely.  Right now the only effects of digitization which are getting attention are those which are mobilized behind consumer spending and political behavior.