Two days after Donald Trump was elected president, Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, sat onstage at a Ritz-Carlton outside San Francisco and spoke of his deep understanding of the feelings of American voters. He was appearing at Techonomy’s annual retreat, a meeting of thought leaders in the worlds of technology, government, academia and business, and he was responding to a common criticism — the notion that Trump’s unconventional path to victory had benefited from a detour through Facebook, where a “filter bubble” distorts the flow of information and fake news stories loom large. “There is a certain profound lack of empathy,” he said, “in asserting that the only reason why someone could have voted the way they did is because they saw some fake news. If you believe that, then I don’t think you have internalized the message that Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.” When asked to articulate that message, he dodged the question.
“Empathy” is one of Facebook’s all-time favorite buzzwords. For years, Zuckerberg has hopped from conference to conference in a selection of muted hoodies and T-shirts, delivering variations on the same pitch. “More people are using Facebook to share more stuff,” he said in 2010. “That means that if we want, there’s more out there that we can go look at and research and understand what’s going on with the people around us. And I just think that leads to broader empathy, understanding — just a lot of good, core, human things that make society function better.” If you think Facebook may have had a hand in tipping popular opinion toward Trump, Zuckerberg seemed to suggest at the Ritz, then something was wrong with you — something that could be fixed by spending more time on Facebook.
But there is a curiously strategic underpinning to these calls for empathy, too. Empathy, after all, is not sympathy. Sympathy encourages a close affinity with other people: You feel their pain. Empathy suggests something more technical — a dispassionate approach to understanding the emotions of others. And these days, it often seems to mean understanding their pain just enough to get something out of it — to manipulate political, technological and consumerist outcomes in our own favor.
The theorist Marshall McLuhan once assumed this computerization of culture would lead to a rise in empathetic connection. “The aspiration of our time for wholeness, empathy and depth of awareness is a natural adjunct of electric technology,” he wrote in “Understanding Media,” published in 1964; the computer promised a “Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity.” But it wound up offering something else too: a convenient alternative to costly, messy interactions with human beings. What social networks like Facebook really offer is empathy in the aggregate — an illusion of having captured the mood of entire families and friend networks from a safe, neutral distance. Then they turn around and offer advertisers a read on more than a billion users at once. Buzz Andersen — a tech veteran who has worked for Apple, Tumblr and Square — told me that in Silicon Valley, “empathy is basically a more altruistic-sounding way of saying ‘market research.’ ”
And in a marketplace, you’re not trying to understand other people out of altruism or moral responsibility; you’re doing it out of self-interest.
Psychology Today puts it nicely:
Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not always. For instance, it is possible to sympathize with such things as hedgehogs and ladybirds, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with them. Conversely, psychopaths with absolutely no sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to snare or torture them.
Via Rands in Repose.