Empathy

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I’m reading a new book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future by James Bridle. I’ve only just started, but his premise is one with which I resonate. As our world becomes more and more complex we actually are understanding it less. We buy into the idea that our ability to gather data is linked to our making the world a better place; if we can just know more, we can live differently. But the reality around us suggests that this is not true. The more we immerse ourselves in technology the more overwhelmed we become. Instead of actually living life and experiencing our activities and the people around us, we seek to capture it, to contain it, to save it into a chunk of data that we can carry in our pocket. We lose the ability to actually be present, and even worse, we lose a vital skill in relationships: empathy. Our failure to be present in our own lives weakens our ability to be present for others. We are less aware of what they are experiencing and have less compassion and patience because relationships and all the messiness that they entail doesn’t translate easily to a digital medium.

Years ago my family and I visited Yellowstone National Park. It is an amazing place, and one that I hope you will have the chance to visit someday. We spent time, as you would expect, around the rim of “Old Faithful”, waiting for the world famous geyser to do its thing. I was poised with our camera, ready to capture the magic so that we could have it forever. It truly is something to see. “Eruptions can shoot 3,700 to 8,400 US gallons (14,000 to 32,000 L) of boiling water to a height of 106 to 185 feet (32 to 56 m) lasting from 1 1⁄2 to 5 minutes. The average height of an eruption is 145 feet (44 m).” (from the Wikipedia entry) But the eruptions are not on a consistent schedule, they happen between every 35 to 120 minutes. There is a complex formula to predict the time, based on the length of the last eruption, but even with the formula there is a +/-10 minute margin of error. So I positioned myself with the camera trained on the base of the geyser and waited.

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I had several false starts as there is constant activity, and with each one my frustration level grew. This was compounded by the stress of not knowing when to start the video and the growing ache of my arms in holding the camera to my eye so that I would be ready. I guess I stood in that position for 15 minutes, I couldn’t miss this, not after we had come all this way. By the time the eruption actually came my feeling was less one of amazement and exhilaration and more of just relief that it was finally happening. I got it. All on video. I think I’ve watched it twice since then.

Even as I walked away I realized that something profound had happened there. In my attempt to capture the wonder of the eruption I missed being present to the experience itself. Sure, I had it digitally, but the wall of the camera between me and that blast of water shooting 120+ feet in the air had shut me out from really experiencing the event. I’ve never forgotten that moment, and maybe that’s what draws me to Bridle’s book. Our technology is helping us capture things, but in the process it seems to be killing the actual experience of life. Bridle is not the only one saying this, and I think we all sense it, but just aren’t quite sure how to address it. I’ll post again when I finish the book and let you know if he has any ideas.

Jeff Kuhn1 Comment