writing

On Earthrise, Extremism, Electronics and Empathy

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Cross-posted on Medium and HVNGRY.

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And we’re back.

It’s been a tumultuous first half of 2015. There’s been ups and downs all over the world — I hope you’ve had a little more of the former!

This theme for this issue of HVNGRY is perspective, and it’s something easily forgotten in the busy hustle and bustle of each day. When I think of the word, the first thing that pops into my head is this photograph:

A photo of the Earth, as seen from the moon.

This picture, called “earthrise”, was taken on the first manned mission to the moon: Apollo 8. This was one of the first photos that really put us, all of us, into perspective. To loosely quote my childhood hero Carl Sagan: everything we’ve ever known, everywhere we’ve ever gone, and everyone we’ve ever loved, is on that tiny blue dot, floating in space. To think, throughout history, so many people have worked so hard, hurt so many, just to gain control of a fraction of a fraction of a dot. Astronaut Ed Mitchell remarked:

“From out there, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab them, drag them a quarter of a million miles out, and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’.”

It also reminds us, that outside of the people on this planet, we have no one but each other. From out there, it reminds us how vast our similarities; how minuscule our differences. And yet, so much of our world is built focusing on our differences. From birth until forever we are given labels to separate us in all the arbitrary ways that society can: gender, race, sexuality, religion; blah blah blah.

Lately I’ve been pondering: in a more connected world, how is it that so many are moving to extremist positions? For so many of us, internet access is 24/7. Surely with our widened exposure to people from all walks of life, we’d feel greater empathy towards each other, and care more about our wider communities, countries, and world. Instead, racialised brutality continues, by private citizenspolice, and entire governments alike. Nationalist sentiments have been on the rise, and hate groups on the internet boast ever increasing numbers.

It’s not just the political right guilty of widening idealogical gaps, either. Recently a friend explained why he didn’t join a discussion in a Facebook post: he didn’t want to be ripped to shreds. I said, you’re a reasonable person, and no one’s going to attack you personally. But of course people would. People attack each other on the internet all day, and it seems some do it as a hobby. (“Debate me!!,” yells some neo-liberal dudebro.)

The strange paradox that came with our ability to connect to everything, was our choice to connect to only versions of ourselves. Our feeds are increasingly customised. We choose who to follow, who to friend. With more control over our social circles we’ve created almost impenetrable echo chambers — like a hivemind knowingly riddled confirmation bias that keeps coming back for more.

I’m reminded of a great HVNGRY article, where Gabby talked about human empathy and our natural tendencies to feel for, care for, and understand others. I wonder just how much being in our own electronic world messes with our innate ability to empathise. Perhaps in our comfortable little bubbles, we’ve forgotten how.

The problem is self-perpetuating. Inside these bubbles, we can freely talk shit about the “other” — how they must be so blind and ignorant, disrespectful, or whatever. One can preach to a choir that readily affirms our positions, even if they are a little less nuanced than before. Inside these bubbles are where the seeds of extremism start. All reference points have been removed.

It perpetuates when one exits their bubble, into a broader community. Everyone there, having been in their own bubbles, express slightly more extremist opinions than before, hence convincing those not in their bubble that they must be cray cray. They go back and share these stories, develop more extremist views, come back to a broader community, behave more extremely (while seeing others do the same), and it goes on. Rinse, repeat.

If we lose our empathy, then we are truly doomed.

(If we lose all empathy, perhaps we deserve to be.)

Y’know what I found helped profoundly? Simply stepping away from the computer. Have dinner with the people you live with. Go out with your friends. This sounds cliché as fuck but it is so important. Have face-to-face conversations. You’d be amazed at how well your “I’m being an asshole” detector works in person. And if you’re feeling up to it, dare to talk about touchy topics with a good friend whom you respect. Notice how much more you feel where they’re coming from. Notice how well you phrase your own arguments to appeal to their perspective. And notice how much more your learn from them, as well.

I understand that we can’t just quit the internet. Hell, my job is almost 100% on the internet. All our friends are there. Our communities. And I’ll be the first the recognise how important a safe space can be, even if it is an echo chambery bubble. We’re not made for clear-minded debates and nuanced explanations every day. Sometimes we need rest. That’s totally cool. I’m not saying that you should dive straight into a hostile community and try and make friends. Sometimes passively following someone who you respect but disagree with is enough.

For the past few months I’ve limited how much I’m on places like Twitter and Facebook. (I stay away almost 100% during weekends now.) Those places can be such placebos for real interactions with other people! I’m not the most social person, and sometimes it’s been hard to get over the anxiety of attending social events. But when I haven’t, I don’t go back to those sites. Maybe I play a game, or read something (not newsy, haha). And when I do go out and see people, I’m always glad I did. Because it’s a reminder, that there’s so many fantastic people out there, all different to me. And those differences don’t really matter, because, well, this:

Love your fellow humans, and remember to take healthy breaks from your own perspectives.

Until next time.