Using Tech to Teach My Children Empathy

There's a long list of things I want my three boys to learn before they fly the coop. How to tie a bowtie, how to drive a stick shift and how to ask out a girl out by actually talking to her, rather than texting her, are all lost arts in America, and just some of my aspirations for them. 

But far more important than these ultimately trivial things, I want my three young men to learn empathy. By some estimates, college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were 30 years ago. We are facing an empathy shortage of massive proportions. Growing inequality and global unrest are its product.

While tech is a frequently cited fall guy for everything scary in our world, and especially all that is wrong with our children today, there are advances on the horizon that give me incredible hope that tech can reintroduce empathy to the world and, perhaps, one day save us from all of what ails us.

So much of today's media consumption is siloed, individual media consumption. We consume video on personal devices, such as smartphones and tablets. We listen to music with expensive headphones. But all of that is changing - or will. 

After years in the lab, virtual reality is ready for the mainstream. While it might look like very personal, individual media consumption, it is well-positioned to have a tremendous impact on how we view ourselves within the world.

Virtual reality can break down the borders that surround today's video - putting us, the viewer, in control of what we focus in on. It can also allow us to feel digitally what is happening in the physical world that we are viewing. Mark Zuckerberg wrote that virtual reality "is really a new communication platform."

"By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life," he wrote. "Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures."

Imagine being digitally dropped into the middle of refugee camp. You can look around you in a 360-degree space. You can see the faces of the children in front of you and behind you. You can see the desolate accommodations and the desperate surroundings. Imagine surveying the carnage caused by a tsunami or earthquake from the eye of those caught its destructive path.

In the same way, drone video footage can help others see devastation quickly and absorb the scale of the devastation.

P.J. Manney, in an article published several years ago in the Journal of Evolution & Technologysuggests "empathy is created through storytelling" and technology coming to market today and in the near future are extremely well-positioned for storytelling. 

Augmented reality blends and blurs the physical, real-world environment with digital elements. This information will allow us to more fully assess an environment and our place within it. This information allows us to more fully see the story. 

While early digital communication technologies, such as email and texting, were messaging platforms designed to be private, person-to-person communication, more recent digital messaging platforms are broader, extra expansive and increasingly inclusive messaging platforms. Twitter, for example, was widely credited for its pivotal role in communicating to and self-organizing protesters in the absence of open, free media during the Arab Spring uprisings. 

Sabba Quidwai, director of innovative learning at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, makes the case that communication platforms such as Snapchat are redefining the type of storytelling that breeds empathy.

Quidwai explains, "Snaps come from local people telling the story of who they are, what they do and what the day-to-day looks like. At the end of the day, when I have finished watching an entire Snapchat story, I have a deeper appreciation for humanity; but above all, I always leave with the same thought, 'Wow, they are just like us.'"

Indeed, we are sharing more photos that ever before, and we are moving into a world in which we will be sharing more video than ever before.

That's just the start. A digital-infused world is going to drive empathy by helping us remember just how small we are in the world. As the world gets smaller and we become increasingly connected, empathy matters even more. 

Recently, I attended an incredibly impactful memorial service for a 10-year-old boy who died from a brain tumor. My three sons were with me and were moved by the number of people in attendance, but perhaps even more moved when they saw that the service was being streamed. 

It broadened their perspective and allowed them to see the reach of this tragedy beyond their own periphery. Not only did the webcast allow others separated by geography to mourn together with those who mourned at the service, it also allowed my sons to see that the loss we all felt was being felt across the globe by hundreds of people they will probably never meet.  

On a larger scale, services such as Google Translate are allowing us to communicate with a wider spectrum of people than ever before.

Today's tech platforms are rekindling empathy, changing the way we help one another in times of need. The new wave of consumer technology is re-engaging people through immediate, shared experiences.

Tech is making it easier than ever to support causes we believe in and help in times of crisis. Through crowd-funding platforms, such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GoFundme, we are able to put our money where our mouths are.

Tomorrow's tech will help us better understand the needs of those affected in a way yesterday's tech simply couldn't convey. Technology is driving empathy, and in that I find great hope for our children.  

Shawn DuBravac is chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association and the author of "Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Communicate." Follow him on Twitter @shawndubravac

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