Mobile Communications

Rant: Technology connects us at the expense of empathy

Torquemada ranted a few months ago about the abuse of electronics devices, especially on public transport in London. I experienced occasional examples of this behaviour before leaving the UK in 2008, but based on subsequent return visits it does seem to be getting worse. It's tempting to blame this on the increasing availability of noise-making technology, but that might not be the whole story.


Almost everyone now has a phone or other device capable of annoying people around them, but portable music-playing devices are hardly new. Even in the 1980s there were ghetto-blasters and Sony Walkmen (Walkmans?) that were more than capable of winding up a carriage full of commuters. Mostly, from memory, they didn't. Nostalgia can be a whimsical liar, of course, but the problem seems to stem more from people than the devices they own. They – we – are less considerate of others now. So what's changed?


'Western' countries are usually portrayed as being more individualist than the rest of the world. Any sociologist or anthropologist will highlight cultural differences in the way people choose to work together or forge their own paths through life. As individualism increases in a nation, empathy and consideration for others tend to decrease.


There are big differences between countries, even those speaking (roughly) the same language. For me and other English migrants, moving to New Zealand was like going back in time 20 years in terms of community cohesion, consideration and adherence to social rules.


People regularly leave their wallets open on train tables here to display their annual season tickets for the inspectors, then nod off until they arrive at their destination. Nobody steals the wallets. Nobody takes the laptops that commuters leave on the tray tables while wandering off to adjoining carriages to chat with friends or go to the toilet. You could try doing that in parts of London, Paris or New York, but make sure you're insured first.


There are no 'quiet' carriages on the main commuter lines into Wellington, but the carriages are quiet nevertheless. Not silent, because people do talk to each other (even to strangers), but not full of braying idiots shouting nonsense into their phones. People are more polite here, and this does seem to be inversely correlated with the need to express individuality.

It also seems to be directly correlated with the online self, the construct or persona that we create through websites, blogs, apps and especially social media. I'm not suggesting that rudeness and lack of empathy are the fault of social media, but technology increasingly allows us to retreat into worlds of our own devising. Online, we shut out people we don't like and surround ourselves with people we do. In real life we can't do that – though we may try.

Facebook and Twitter in particular position the individual as publisher, placing them at the centre of their world and constraining that world so that it appears more important than it really is. That's clever, but it has the effect of boosting the ego, pandering to the individualist self.

Kiwis in general aren't as likely as Brits to promote themselves online. For example, almost half of all businesses here don't have any online presence, not even a website. Facebook use is quite common, Twitter less so. Self-promotion is culturally tolerated but not actively encouraged.

These are generalisations from my own experience, but I don't think anyone who's lived in both countries would disagree. Even Auckland, despised by many Kiwis as a hotbed of snobbish, image-conscious affluenza-sufferers, can't really compare with the I'm-at-the-centre-of-the-universe mentality that seems prevalent in many parts of the UK.

It's hard to know what comes first, the loss of empathy or the increasing self-promotion through technology. But they do seem to go hand-in-hand, which makes sense. When all you see and do revolves around you, where's the incentive to care about anyone else's feelings?

Unfortunately, despite NZ's slower pace, it's probably on the same general trajectory as the UK. As technology use increases, so our individual worlds become more self-focused, to the detriment of those around us. It doesn't really matter where we live because the destination is the same: inward.

Noisy 'quiet' carriages may be annoying, but they are probably just the tip of the iceberg. Our childish unconscious minds want nothing more than a world entirely devoted to ourselves. For hundreds of thousands of years we couldn't have that, so we had to rub along nicely with other people. But technology is increasingly capable of giving us what we really want, our deepest desires made real: our own personal universes. When it does, we'll have no reason to consider other people's feelings at all.

So there's little point in getting upset when people turn up their music or shout into their phones in quiet carriages. You won't break through their shield of narcissism. From their perspective, you're just jealous because they're so great.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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