It’s really hard for me to grasp that it’s been a whole year since I moved out of Brooklyn and back down to North Carolina. In a lot of ways this place and this life down here still feel new. I saw three blue jays and a rabbit today, and it was a totally normal day. I drive everywhere, and even though I literally do that every day it still surprises me sometimes. My shoes are lasting longer. I don’t need to use an umbrella as much when it rains. I eat a lot more french fries.

One of the biggest things that’s different down here is that I’m not constantly surrounded by other writers. Part of me wants to say that’s not a North Carolina thing, it’s a result of leaving that huge writers’ group on Facebook and not working at a job with other writers and not having an in-person writing group anymore either. But the fact is that New York is where the writers are. A lot of them, at least. I worried about this when I first thought about moving – would I still be a writer if I removed myself from the place where writers live? Writers live everywhere of course. And I’m slowly meeting others down here, but it’s not as easy to literally run into them. (Driving everywhere, remember?)

What’s funny is I’ve actually done more writing in the year since I moved here than I did the entire last two years I lived in New York. I wrote a whole damn book! But now I find myself having finished that book, with only small edits and administrative tasks remaining, and I’m staring at days and weeks and months ahead of just… normal life. Getting up, going to work, working a normal day like a normal person, getting home around five and then having hours to just…. well I don’t know what! This is the biggest difference between living in Brooklyn and living in central North Carolina – reasonable working hours, short commute – and I haven’t actually been able to enjoy it much until now. And I … don’t know what to do with it. So naturally I’m coming up with all kinds of new ideas for projects. And even though I know I can do it now – I know I can sell an idea, a project, a book – I still have that fear in the back of my mind that if I try to go through with any of these things I’ll be found out as a fraud, a hack, a person who isn’t special, isn’t actually a writer.

After work today I called my grandmother. She lives about 500 miles away, so I call her once a month or so to talk. I told her that now that I’ve got some free time, I keep worrying – that’s the word I used, not thinking or brainstorming but worrying – about what to write next.

“It will come to you,” she said. “Just give it time.”

I so often feel like I don’t have time. This is another thing I’d like to blame on living so many years in New York, but I’ve actually been this way since I was a kid, always rushing from one thing to another, always trying to go fast and over and through to the next thing. I’m impatient – I’ll be the first one to say it. I interrupt people (I’m working on that) because I’m so excited to get to the next part of the conversation; I give up on new hobbies (knitting, guitar playing, calligraphy, scrapbooking, canning, etc etc etc…) because I don’t feel like I have time to learn. I mean, what if I never learn? What if I never get there, despite hours or weeks or years of trying?

I know how cliche this sounds, but talking to my 85-year-old grandmother helped put this into perspective for me today. The conversation didn’t cure me of my impatience or impostor syndrome, but it reminded me not to try to force things. The result of rushing work is that I feel harried and anxious, even when I complete something, and I’m so ready to move on I can’t really enjoy the accomplishment. The result of talking over others is less human connection. The result of giving up every time something takes “too long” to learn is never knowing which of those things I might have actually been able to do if I gave myself a chance.

For some reason, I gave myself the chance to write The Future of Feeling. The planets aligned and I met the right people at the right time who gave me the right encouragement, and I was in the right place to receive all of that, and I let myself do it. I have no idea if that magic will ever happen again. That slow growing of a seed of an idea while I wasn’t even paying attention, until I was in the right place with the right tools to cultivate it. Now that I’ve done it once, I feel like I’m watching the ground too closely. If I take my grandmother’s advice, I might miss the next one. Or maybe I’ll shut my brain up long enough to actually see it.

Is AOC right about AI?

Conservative Twitter is up in arms today over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying at an MLK Day event that algorithms are biased. (Of course “bias” has been translated into “racism.”) The general response from the right has been, “What a dumb socialist! Algorithms are run by math. Math can’t be racist!” And from the tech experts on Twitter: “Well, actually….”

I have to put myself in the latter camp. Though I’m not exactly a tech expert, I’ve been researching the impact of technology like AI and algorithms on human well-being for a couple of years now, and the evidence is pretty clear: people have bias, people make algorithms, so algorithms have bias.

When I was a kid, my dad had this new-fangled job as a “computer programmer”. The most vivid and lasting evidence of this vocation was huge stacks of perforated printer paper and dozens upon dozens of floppy disks. But I also remember him saying this phrase enough times to get it stuck in my head: “garbage in, garbage out.” This phrase became popular in the early computer days because it was an easy way to explain what happened when flawed data was put into a machine – the machine spit flawed data out. This was true when my dad was doing…whatever he was doing… and when I was trying to change the look of my MySpace page with rudimentary HTML code. And it’s true with AI, too. (Which is a big reason we need the tech world to focus more on empathy. But I won’t go on that tangent today.)

When I was just starting work on my book, I read Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction (read it.), which convinced me beyond any remaining doubt that we had a problem. Relying on algorithms to make decisions for us that have little to no oversight and are entirely susceptible to contamination by human bias – conscious or not – is not a liberal anxiety dream. It’s our current reality. It’s just that a lot of us – and I’ll be clear that here I mean a lot of us white and otherwise nonmarginalized people – don’t really notice.

Maybe you still think this is BS. Numbers are numbers, regardless of the intent/mistake/feeling/belief of the person entering them into a computer, you say. This is often hard to get your head around when you see all bias as intentional, I get that, I’ve been there. So let me give you some examples:

There are several studies showing that people with names that don’t “sound white” are often passed up for jobs in favor of more “white-sounding” names. It reportedly happens to women, too. A couple of years ago, Amazon noticed that the algorithm it had created to sift through resumes was biased against women. It had somehow “taught itself that male candidates were preferable.” Amazon tweaked the algorithm, but eventually gave up on it, claiming it might find other ways to skirt neutrality. The algorithm wasn’t doing that with a mind of its own, of course. Machine-learning algorithms, well, learn, but they have to have teachers, whether those teachers are people or gobs of data arranged by people (or by other bots that were programmed by people…). There’s always a person involved, is my point, and people are fallible. And biased. Even unconsciouslyEven IBM admits it. This is a really difficult problem that even the biggest tech companies haven’t yet figured out how to fix. This isn’t about saying “developers are racist/sexist/evil,” it’s about accounting for the fact that all people have biases, and even if we try to set them aside, they can show up in our work. Especially when those of us doing that work happen to be a pretty homogeneous group. One argument for more diversity in tech is that if the humans making the bots are more diverse, the bots will know how to recognize and value more than one kind of person. (Hey, maybe instead of trying to kill us the bots that take over the world will be super woke!)

Another example: In 2015, Google came under fire after a facial recognition app identified several black people as gorillas. There’s no nice way to say that. That’s what happened. The company apologized and tried to fix it, but the best it could do at the time was to remove “gorilla” as an option for the AI. So what happened? Google hasn’t been totally clear on the answer to this, but facial recognition AI works by learning to categorize lots and lots of photos. Technically someone could have trained it to label black people as gorillas, but perhaps more likely is that the folks training the AI in this case simply didn’t consider this potential unintended consequence of letting an imperfect facial recognition bot out into the world. (And, advocates argue, maybe more black folks on the developer team could have prevented this. Maybe.) Last year a spokesperson told Wired: “Image labeling technology is still early and unfortunately it’s nowhere near perfect.” At least Google Photos lets users to report mistakes, but for those who are still skeptical, note: that means even Google acknowledges mistakes are being – and will continue to be – made in this arena.

One last example, because it’s perhaps the most obvious and also maybe the most ridiculous: Microsoft’s Twitter bot, Tay. In 2016, this AI chatbot was unleashed on Twitter, ready to learn how to talk like a millennial and show off Microsoft’s algorithmic skills. But almost as soon as Tay encountered the actual people of Twitter – all of them, not just cutesy millennials speaking in Internet code but also unrepentant trolls and malignant racists – her limitations were put into stark relief. In less than a day, she became a caricature of violent, anti-semitic racist. Some of the tweets seemed to come out of nowhere, but some were thanks to a nifty feature in which people could say “repeat after me” to Tay and she would do just that. (Who ever would have thought that could backfire on Twitter?) Microsoft deleted Tay’s most offensive tweets and eventually made her account private. It was a wild day on the Internet, even for 2016, but it was quickly forgotten. The story bears repeating today, though, because clearly we are still working out the whole bot-human interaction thing.

To close, I’ll just leave you with AOC’s words at the MLK event. See if they still seem dramatic to you.

“Look at – IBM was creating facial recognition technology to target, to do crime profiling. We see over and over again, whether it’s FaceTime, they always have these racial inequities that get translated because algorithms are still made by human beings, and those algorithms are still pegged to those, to basic human assumptions. They’re just automated, and automated assumptions, it’s like if you don’t fix the bias then you’re automating the bias. And that gets even more dangerous.”

(This is the “crime profiling” thing she references, by the way. I’m not sure where the FaceTime thing comes from but I will update this post if/when I get some context on that.)

Update: Thanks to the PLUG newsletter (which I highly recommend) I just came across this fantastic video that does a wonderful job of explaining the issue of AI bias and diversity. It includes a pretty wild example, too. Check it out.

Musings on The American Meme and my Instagram Addiction

In the past 7 days, I’ve spent 8 hours and 35 minutes on Instagram, according to my phone’s Screen Time tracker. That’s an entire workday’s worth of minutes watching celebrities talk and friends feed their babies and advertisers try desperately to get me to buy Allbirds shoes (at this point I’m not buying them on principle). And my usage is down 11% from last week!

I know that I have a problem. It’s not that I can’t go an hour without looking at Instagram. I could put my phone in my purse and stare harder at my computer screen, or go for a walk, or sit and think for a few minutes about what’s actually behind my urge to open the app. I’ve spent enough time thinking about this that I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that, though: I’m anxious, bored, sad, frustrated, or tired. Instagram has become a little security blanket for me. It’s a place to get lost in other people’s lives for a few (or 30) minutes at a time so I don’t have to consciously think about what’s bothering me or, more importantly, do anything about it.

Yes, this is terrible! I sound like a jerk. The worst part is that now that I’ve psychoanalyzed myself to the point of understanding this, almost every time I open the app I feel guilt on top of it all. I should be treating myself better. I should be more authentic. I should be spending more time on actual work. This spiral is exhausting, and that feeling just makes me want to see if any of the people I follow have posted a new Instagram Story while I’ve been typing this…

I’m not unique in this. Instagram and its fellow social media platforms were built to become indispensable to us in this way, to cause little dopamine rushes that keep us coming back. Maybe that’s sinister, or maybe it’s just business.

On Sunday night I tried to put my phone away for a little while and watch a documentary. Naturally, the doc I chose was Netflix’s The American Meme. It’s essentially Behind the Music, for social media influencers – people who hawk brands and destinations and their own lives for money on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat (and formerly Vine, RIP).

The doc follows a few different influencers, some I had heard of and some I hadn’t. I was most surprised by how much I learned about Paris Hilton, and what a sympathetic character she was, especially in comparison to some of  the other people in the film. I had heard of comedian(?) “The Fat Jewish” before, and even followed him for a little while until he was outed for stealing other people’s memes and passing them off as his own. When the interviewers asked him about this in the documentary, his answer was basically, “yeah, so?” Among other things, he now runs an apparently very successful wine business. Lesson (from TFJ and several of the others): lying sells!

Is this new? No. But as with a lot of millennial-focused content, what’s unique is the sense of nihilism that permeates this documentary. There’s a feeling that nothing matters, nothing is real, no one actually cares about anything or anyone, so why not spend your nights pouring champagne on women’s bare asses at night clubs and making fun of fat people for money? Why not create elaborate hoaxes with celebrities and trick entertainment news organizations into covering them as if they’re real for attention? Why not do the most ridiculous and physically dangerous stunt you can think of, for followers?

One of the things that struck me most was a quote from the mother of Kirill “slutwhisperer” Bichutsky, who, defending what her son does for a living, said something along the lines of, “he’s like an actor playing a bad person – you don’t judge the actor as if they really are that person.” Don’t we? Where is the line, really? I’m not an influencer, but should I be judged by how I present myself online, or in person? Is there actually a difference? It seems to depend who you ask.

I didn’t want to relate to these people, but ultimately I couldn’t help it. The story of Kirill, a photographer and Instagram influencer who pours champagne on women’s asses and calls them sluts, among other charming things, broke through to my empathic heart despite my best efforts. The Kirill in this documentary is exhausted, ashamed, and depressed. He seems like he’s ready to give up being an asshole for a living and meet someone he can make a life with. He says this is what he does because it’s what he has to do – because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. I feel trapped by social media because it helps me escape, but I can’t imagine feeling like I truly had no other choice.

When Kirill posted something that made it seem like he might be suicidal, fans told him not to kill himself – they still wanted to party. He was 33 when the doc was being filmed, in 2017. After watching, I wondered if he’d hung up his champagne bottles, but a glimpse at Instagram shows that slutwhisperer is alive and well, with a new slogan: Assholes Live Forever.

There’s no big lesson from The American Meme. It probably doesn’t teach you anything you don’t already know if you follow these people. But watching it felt like it might have felt to watch a Behind the Music about a drug-fueled 1970s band in the middle of the 1970s. That’s one of the wildest things about our media landscape now – we can analyze things so much more easily in real time. We can watch ourselves be taken over by “addiction” to social media, realize it’s happening, but not really know how to get away from it.

At the end of last year I finally deactivated my Facebook. I don’t miss it at all. But that’s partly because most of the people I was interested in following there had migrated to Instagram. Over the past year I have also spent a lot more time with people in real life – coffee dates, dinners, book clubs. I wonder, if I gave up on Instagram too, would my obsession turn to in-person hangouts? Or would I finally succumb to Snapchat?

Anyway, it’s been a long day (and a long post). I’m really looking forward to going home, sitting on the couch, and catching up on Instagram Stories. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe it will help me relax. More likely it will make me feel anxious and lacking. But I’ll do it anyway.

What a year.

Happy New Year, folks!

It will not surprise you to read that I’ve been struggling a bit with how to approach this blog over the past year or so. I love writing about empathy, but while writing a whole 60,000-word book on the subject the thought of also writing blog posts on the topic was exhausting. I also felt like I didn’t have much new to say here that I wasn’t saving for my book. I love summarizing research that I come across, but a) I don’t often have the time to do the proper reporting and make sure my analysis is accurate and b) that’s frankly kind of boring to a lot of people!

I think I felt like because I was writing a book about empathy I needed to specifically brand my blog that way, but it ended up just constraining me. There are so many things I want to write about in more than a few tweets, but that probably won’t get picked up as freelance articles. That middle ground is what blogging is best at, and I think as I continue to grow as a writer it makes sense to flex that muscle here more often.

I’m not going back to long descriptions of my weekend activities (lol, 2012 me…) and I’ll continue to avoid long political rants, but I need to do more here than just post links to empathy-related science articles every once in a while. I’ve been thinking a lot about transparency – as it relates to tech, but also as it relates to journalism – so in that vein, why don’t I tell y’all a bit about what this book writing process has been like?

It has been long. That’s something a lot of people told me to prepare for at the beginning but I still don’t think I was ready. I am an impatient person. It’s something I’ve kind of embraced about my personality but it doesn’t always serve me. It can be great for project management and even for reporting; it’s not so great for long projects whose steps I can’t always control. I started working on the book that became THE FUTURE OF FEELING in 2016. I think it was summer, and I was at a bar in Brooklyn with my husband talking about the next thing. That year’s thing for us had been getting married. I always seem to have a thing, and my brain was itching for the next one. I had always known I wanted to write a book, but I assumed I’d have to work diligently as a reporter at a newspaper or magazine for at least 10 years before I would know enough about anything to write a whole book on it.

I don’t know if it was the atmosphere or the beer or my obsessive need to start on something new, but that day I just decided – I’m gonna do it. I’m just gonna start. I’d been thinking a lot about how natural empathy can seem but how hard it can actually be to practice, and how the extremely online life I’d led since age 14 or so had seriously complicated how I related to and understood other humans. This idea itself wasn’t new and had been written about a ton already. But what about what was coming next? I’m always thinking (read: worrying) about the future, and looking back at how quickly tech – social media, especially – had taken over my own life and those of my peers, I wondered what was in store for us next. I’d tried to find books about this, but mostly came up empty. So, that day at the bar – Abilene, in Carroll Gardens – I just decided I would write one.

I did not suddenly feel qualified, or smart enough, or talented enough to write a book. But I had decided to go to grad school and made it, decided to move to New York and survived…maybe I could do this the same way. Make the decision first, figure out the details later. And that’s what I did. Frankly I’m still figuring out the details, but I started by googling “how to write a nonfiction book.” I also asked for help from a huge Facebook network of writers I was part of at the time. I ended up finding several websites that helped me figure out the basic process – initial reporting, proposal, find an agent, revise proposal, go out on submission, (hopefully) secure a publisher, write book, make a few bucks if you’re lucky, start again.

The first part – initial reporting and writing the proposal – took the longest. I’d say I started seriously reporting in mid-2016, and then I started the proposal on December 29, 2016. I remember because I took a photo of my laptop and coffee at the coffee shop I was at and posted it on Instagram, of course. (Funnily enough, that coffee shop was in North Carolina not too far from where I now live.) I followed a couple of guides that I found online to create a format for the proposal (overview, chapter outlines, competing titles, sample chapters, author bio, etc.) but I was kind of lost as to how to really fill it in. I was lucky to have an amazing writing group in New York that met every week – unheard of, really. Without their encouragement, accountability and criticism I might still be working on the damn thing. Thankfully they helped me get it into shape throughout 2017 and by the end of the year I was ready to send it to agents.

2018 was the year of the book. It all happened. I queried 12 agents during the first and second week of January. I got a couple of very encouraging rejections, a bunch of no-replies, and two requests for the proposal. Of those, one agent never responded again, and one said yes. I could have kept going, but I really liked the one who said yes (she had experience with books like mine, understood what I was trying to accomplish with this project, and we got along on a personal level), so by the end of January I was agented. My understanding is that this was relatively quick, but not out of the ordinary for a nonfiction book. (Fiction is a whole other story.) I remember I got the call from my agent – Jill Marsal – at work in Brooklyn while I was waiting for another call, from my now-boss in North Carolina. When my phone rang I didn’t really look at the number and just picked up, expecting an answer about the job in NC. When I heard Jill’s voice I was so surprised that I didn’t know how to respond to her telling me that yes, she wanted to represent me. (Later I got the other call, and in a couple of weeks I was down here in NC – 2018 really started off wild.)

Jill and I worked for a few weeks on my proposal, and when it was ready to go on submission she kept me updated with the responses – lots and lots of rejections! But one thing I’ve learned is that if people are rejecting you it means they’re reading your work and considering it. They know your name, they know your work exists, they read and thought about it – in the creative world, that’s no small thing. But eventually someone said yes – Little A, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. It was early May when I signed the contract to officially write THE FUTURE OF FEELING.

Then…I had to finish it. I had written a couple of sample chapters and done some research, but I hadn’t wanted to pour too much time into reporting a book that may or may not be published. Now that I knew it was real, I had to get serious. I created a more detailed outline that changed approximately 7,239 times throughout the process only to end up basically the way it was at the beginning. I set deadlines for myself for each chapter and section. I read other books, gobbled up google alerts for “empathy + tech” and “empathy + study” and reached out to dozens of people for interviews. I was happy to find that most of the experts and practitioners I emailed were happy to get on the phone or Skype and talk to me about empathy – or the lack of it – in tech, and about what they were doing to try to fix this. I interviewed people in the US, Canada and Ireland. I went to a VR conference in New York and tested some of the tech I was writing about. I had piles and piles of printed out articles and notes and thousands and thousands of words of transcribed interviews. It was a lot, but honestly, it was not as hard as writing the initial proposal. I had the foundation, I just had to build the house. Sometimes I felt like I was following very well-designed blueprints; sometimes I felt like I was throwing sticks at concrete and hoping they’d somehow form walls. Toward the end, I started just throwing my notes to the side and vomit-writing, just getting ideas out in a stream of consciousness so they’d at least be on the page. If I’m honest, that’s how I wrote most of the first draft. I just threw it into Word, questions to myself and musings about my interview subjects and all-caps reminders included.

Then I did the unthinkable – I let people read it like that. With the caveat that it clearly wasn’t done (and the persistent thought that I really didn’t know what else to do and it might actually just stay in this state forever) I emailed chapters to friends and fellow writers and asked them what they thought. I got some niceties and a lot of “oops I forgot to read it!” messages, but I also got some really helpful feedback. I started revising, using a red pen to make structural changes and tiny line edits. Then, about halfway through, I put it aside and ignored it for a month.

I felt kind of paralyzed. I was working full time throughout this whole thing, plus reading the news every day (which is exhausting in itself these days) and by November I was burnt out. I asked myself nearly every day for a couple of weeks whether I had made anything remotely readable and if I should just give back the advance and pretend this never happened. This is a very common – and some would argue necessary – part of book-writing, I’m told! And I did snap out of it. At the beginning of December I took a solo trip up north. I made the rookie mistake of telling my editor I’d be in town. She wasn’t, but suggested I send her what I had anyway. I was so close to the end…I decided I would send her the whole thing, even though it technically wasn’t due until January 4.

I went to New York for one night and one day to see a concert and connect with a couple of writer friends. We commiserated and confessed our insecurities to one another. It was exactly what I needed. I headed to my grandmother’s house in Connecticut and on the train ride there and over two days in her sun room I finished revising, reorganizing and rewriting the whole damn thing. I subsisted on Christmas candy, bagels, and ginger ale. I barely moved from the wooden table except to watch a movie with her one evening in the living room. My trip was cut short by an impending snowstorm and just as I was freaking out about this my editor emailed to say she wouldn’t have time to read anything for a few more days. With a huge sigh of relief, I booked it back to North Carolina and just as the storm descended, I finished. And I sent it. And I breathed.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was done. (That should probably be on my tombstone.) Then all I had to do was wait for my editor’s verdict. Would she see huge problems and ask me to make major revisions in the few weeks before my official delivery date? Would she love it and tell me I didn’t need to make any edits at all? (Ha! Obviously I spent significantly more time on the first what-if.) I had a lot of work to do at my day job in the meantime, and Christmas festivities were beginning, so I was blissfully distracted a lot of the time. Then on the 21st, the day before my long holiday break from work, my editor emailed to say she wasn’t done, but she liked what she saw so far, and I could consider myself submitted. I cried a little, I’m not gonna lie. And then I went to a Christmas party and got very drunk with some of my best friends.

There is still a lot of work ahead. Revisions start next week and will take a couple of months. Then there are all the parts I know have to be there but I don’t know how they work – the cover, marketing, actually getting the book in stores, etc. The pub date is still a year away. (I told you – it’s a long process!) I’m already thinking about my next book (or 2…) and a podcast project I want to do this year. And my husband and I are house hunting. And yet I still feel like I don’t have “enough” going on for 2019…!

I hope this was interesting for some of you. Maybe you’re thinking of writing a nonfiction book and you didn’t know where to start. Or maybe you just enjoy reading about my meltdowns throughout the process. I still feel new at this, but if you have any questions I’d be happy to try to help. And look out for more in this space in 2019!

Tech is a tool – turns out empathy is too.

One of the most confounding things about researching empathy is that it’s often talked about as if it’s an obvious Good Thing. I constantly read and hear that empathy will help fix this problem or improve that relationship or better that industry. But the reality I am coming to understand is that empathy is a mechanism, a tool of our brains and hearts, that does not have an inherent value. It comes up most often in a positive context because we see understanding others and putting ourselves in their shoes as a good thing, which it often is. But this kind of perspective-taking is also used for negative, manipulative reasons all the time. We don’t usually call that empathy, but in many cases the mechanism seems the same.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since my June trip back to New York for the Games for Change summit. I eagerly consumed as many virtual reality experiences as I could in my one afternoon there, surrendering myself as much as possible to the narratives they immersed me in. I was a fly on the wall in the bedroom of a white supremacist teenager; I followed along with nonprofit workers as they helped to free a family in India from servitude; I embodied the virtual experience of a young black man. All of these were trying to teach me about a human experience I was unfamiliar with, and they all had positive intentions. But if the makers behind these VR projects could bring me close to tears for a former white nationalist and a young black man dealing with daily microaggressions in the same afternoon, what else could they do?

The major caveat to this line of thinking is, in my view, the fact that how we come to VR experiences – our own personal backgrounds, our expectations, or hopes for what we will see and feel – plays a big role in determining how they affect us. I don’t think many people are putting on VR headsets totally unencumbered by expectations or opinions about the content of what they’re about to see. As this technology becomes more ubiquitous, though, it might become easier to sneak these experiences on people; pulling the same levers that trigger empathy can trigger other things as well: hatred, anger, fear. We already do it with less fanciful technology, don’t we? Digital advertisers work to try to understand how we view the world so that they can put t he best ads in front of us; communications teams for politicians write certain words and phrases into speeches that they guess, by putting themselves briefly in the shoes of their base, will generate a reaction. Perspective-taking in service of manipulation isn’t new, but as technology evolves, the capacity for doing this on a larger and larger level grows.

This concern really started bubbling up for me a a couple of months ago, after I experienced a couple of rough days of trolling on Twitter. I realized that while I had always seen internet trolls as lacking empathy, what they were doing actually required a certain level of it. They just wielded it a different way than we’re used to thinking about. So of course, I tweeted some thoughts:



This gets at a lot of what’s been swirling around in my head as I write this book about the future of empathy and technology. The people I interview often remind me that technology is a tool, but I’m realizing that empathy is one too.

As I wrote in my last post, it feels like a weird time to be writing a book about empathy. But conversations like the one described above make me feel like it’s worth it, no matter how it turns out. Stay tuned for more.

Why empathy & tech, and why now?

In many ways, this feels like a really weird time to be writing a book about empathy.

Especially empathy & technology, the latter of which is broad but also broadly applies only to people with a certain kind of privilege. Access to broadband, to schools with tech resources, to hardware like laptops or phones or ipads. Access to disposable income that can be spent on something like a VR headset (which I admittedly haven’t been able to justify yet myself).

And with all that’s going on in the world, I also think a lot about the targets of empathy crusades.

Who are you trying to build empathy for? Who are you trying to build it in? Why? What are the potential inherent biases there? Who are you othering, intentionally or not? I’m grateful to Sundance’s Kamal Sinclair and documentarian Michele Stephenson, among others, for helping me think through this with their work.

I want this book to further this conversation, and start new ones. But on a lot of recent days, with the weight of what’s happening in the wider world, and the many small heartbreaks in my own circle, I wonder if it matters.

My recent trip to New York to attend part of the Games for Change summit helped me think through a lot of this and gave me some validation that the stories I’m trying to tell do matter, even if it’s not always clear exactly how and why. The thing I keep coming back to: empathy is not endorsement, and empathy is not enough.

Here I am experiencing 1,000 Cut Journey, an immersive VR experience depicting the life of a young black man in America that moved me almost to tears.


I spend a lot of time (always have) wondering if I should be doing something else. But I’m dedicated to finding a way to productively add to this conversation about the future of empathy. Maybe I’ll fail, but at a time when nothing feels like enough, this is what I have to offer, and I have to try.

The Future of Feeling

Hi all! It’s been kind of quiet here recently because I’ve been working on a pretty big project that I can now finally announce: I’m writing a book!

It’s about empathy, of course. The future of empathy and technology, to be more precise. I get to interview lots of people who are creating technology aimed at building and/or preserving empathy in our tech-obsessed world, and it’s honestly a dream come true.

I’ll still be blogging here a bit. Even 60,000 words isn’t enough to cover everything empathy ;) And I want to thank all of you for reading –  you helped me get here!

Stay tuned for updates, and more nerdy posts in the coming months.

We like to move it

Virtual reality is often referred to as an “empathy machine,” a term coined in 2015 by tech entrepreneur and artist Chris Milk in a TED Talk. The idea is that while reading about something, or even watching a documentary, can be moving, there’s something uniquely intimate about virtual reality. It puts you “in” a situation in a way that other media doesn’t.

I’ve written before about how this idea has taken hold in service of social causes, and how “future tech” that’s really right around the corner could take empathy to a whole new level. Research is ongoing into what really happens when people put on VR headsets. Do they really feel more empathy for the characters they’re “watching,” or for people who experience the things they “experience” in VR? Some evidence shows that the answer is yes, but feedback about overwhelm and empathy fatigue after VR experiences is also common.

A couple of weeks ago Jeremy Bailenson, one of the foremost experts on VR, wrote in WIRED about some new evidence that the most effective way to create empathy through a VR experience is to make the user move around.

Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford, conducted a study in 2013 in which participants simulated being colorblind. Half used their imagination, while the other half used VR. They were then asked to lift up and sort objects in VR. The results showed that those who had experienced colorblindness in VR had a much harder time completing the task, and after the study, they spent a lot more time helping others when asked to do so.

The next study Bailenson plans to release will show a correlation between moving around a virtual coral reef and subjects’ desire to know more about ocean conservation.

He goes into a lot more detail in the piece, which you should read! This strategy of making people move around while having a VR experience might be the answer to a lot of criticisms of empathy focused VR. It makes sense to me just from a muscle-memory standpoint, but it will be interesting to see what the data shows about how VR, movement, and empathy are actually connected in our brains.

Empathy is both given & made

When the subject of empathy comes up, there’s often a debate about whether we’re born with it, or whether it’s something we learn. As with most things, the answer is probably not at either end of the spectrum  – it’s most likely in the middle.

In the past few months, I’ve been researching and writing about both ends.

For Woolly, I wrote about the empathy movement in podcasting, where a growing collection of shows aims to get people to listen to (and have) tough conversations. I wrote about my personal retreat into podcasts (and away from cable news and social media) after the 2016 presidential election, and how some of them – especially With Friends Like These – helped me find empathy where I didn’t expect it.

Then I wrote for Vitals, Lifehacker’s health vertical, about the newest development in the search for an empathy gene. Researchers have figured out that at least some of individuals’ differences in empathy can be explained by DNA, so we might inherit our empathy levels, and disorders characterized by low empathy, like schizophrenia, might have a genetic cause. But they’re still trying to find out how. This latest study didn’t come up with any major revelations, but it’s a step forward, and it also validated a lot of previous findings.

That’s all for now. Apologies for being so absent these past few months. I moved from New York back to North Carolina and have been settling in. Now that things are starting to feel normal, I’ll be back to blogging more regularly!

Poking the empathy part of the brain

Hello and Happy New Year! Hopefully by now you’ve settled into 2018 and dug out of the frozen tundra (if you’re in the U.S.) Here in Brooklyn we have reached the “grey slush and surprise ice patches” phase of winter and it’s gross as ever. I could really write a whole post about the disgusting things that happen to the sidewalks here when the snow melts, but I’ll spare you… Instead, let’s talk about something else that seems kind of obvious but is actually super interesting: empathy’s role in moral dilemmas like, you know, whether or not to kill someone.

In a recent UCLA study, researchers found that they could guess whether a person would harm or kill another person based on how their brains reacted when they saw someone else in pain.

The researchers showed 19 volunteers two videos in which a hand was either touched by a cotton swab or stabbed with a needle. This is a pretty common way to measure empathy, and that’s what these scientists did: they used an fMRI machine to measure brain activity in the places where this specific type of empathy – acknowledging someone else’s pain and feeling for them – is thought to reside. They also apparently analyzed researchers’ “mirror neurons,” which are neurons that are said to fire both when a person feels something and when they see someone else appearing to experience that same feeling. (There’s some controversy about mirror neurons.)

In addition to showing them the videos, the researchers asked the participants some common questions aimed at determining whether a person would hurt or kill someone else: there’s the “crying baby during wartime” question, for example, when you’re meant to say whether you would suffocate a baby whose cries might give away your location to the enemy. They also asked whether the volunteers would torture someone in order to prevent a bomb from killing some people, or harm research animals in order to cure AIDS.

The researchers guessed that those with more empathy related action happening in their brains during the needle video would be less likely to hurt the crying baby, and they turned out to be correct, at least with this small sample size. They didn’t find a correlation between brain activity and willingness to hurt someone else to help a larger number of people, however. The reason, they argued, may be that those decisions are a lot more complex.

“It would be fascinating to see if we can use brain stimulation to change complex moral decisions through impacting the amount of concern people experience for others’ pain,” said Marco Iacoboni, director of the Neuromodulation Lab at UCLA and one of the leading mirror neuron experts, in a statement. “It could provide a new method for increasing concern for others’ well-being.”

I highlighted just a few of the reasons this research does not suggest causation (and, as you hopefully know, research rarely does). But I’m actually more interested in Iacoboni’s quote. I’ve been researching and writing a lot over the past year about the different ways people are trying to increase empathy in the human brain. Most of the time, these stories involve tech like virtual reality or Fitbit-like gadgets. But Iacoboni’s suggestion of using brain stimulation to potentially make people more empathetic decision-makers doesn’t seem that far-fetched…though it does seem kind of like taking the easy way out. I’m sure he means this mostly (if not completely) for academic purposes, but I wouldn’t put it past tech companies to find a quick way to capitalize on “instant empathy.” We already have brain stimulation gadgets that are meant to help with stress and anxiety and a host of other things.

There are a couple of concerns, here. First is regulation to keep people from accidentally harming themselves or tech companies from doing nefarious things with the new level of personal brain data they might collect. Second is kind of the opposite: Do we want the government to potentially have the ability to stimulate our brains to change how we make complex moral decisions? I don’t mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist! But when so much sci fi stuff is becoming real life, it seems worth asking these questions.

Something to keep an eye on, for sure.