Have we reached “peak empathy” yet, or will “Big Empathy” be a thing soon, like Big Pharma or Big Oil? Just as news arrived that the MIT-incubated startup Koko won funding to teach empathy to bots (“we’re working toward providing empathy as a service to any voice or messaging platform,” cofounder Fraser Kelton recently told Fast Company) some of us from Made by Many were at the fascinating mega-meet up in Malmö called The Conference, where there was plenty more eager talk about this highly-prized yet elusive emotional asset.

Attracting hundreds of people from across the globe, The Conference addresses complexity and trends in the digital world, and is a great place to have your mind radically opened by, say, a talk on hacking Minecraft or a performance from a lady throwing lumps of clay onto the floor in the name of art (below).

And although this year’s edition didn’t explicitly communicate a theme, empathy emerged as a central one.

Over the course of two days and some 18 presentations by luminaries from the worlds of UX, AI, VR, academia, gaming, humanitarianism and so on, we heard a number of different definitions of empathy. In the talk entitled “Being an Empathetic Company”, speakers from internet businesses Slack (Lean Reich), Mailchimp (Lain Shakespeare) and Alfred (Marcela Sapone) discussed what empathy meant to them and how it functioned in their workplaces, with Sapone urging listeners to become “empathy cowboys”.

(By the way, the ability to “feel into” another’s inner experience is, in my opinion, the truest definition of empathy. Empathy is function of genuine communication, which tends to fail in the absence of empathy. Think of the roots of that word: the Latin “communicare” means “to share”).

Getting Perspective

Before that, the keynote talk by “thick data” ethnographer Tricia Wang entitled “Don’t Trust The Truth” used Renaissance art’s discovery of linear perspective to expand upon how we all need to open our minds to the way others see things.

Perspective privileges the eye of the beholder, and back in 1972 John Berger argued that it was central to or symptomatic of the rise in Western individualism (the image above is from his book "Ways of Seeing). Perspective’s contemporary incarnation is the browser window or smartphone screen, which teleports all known internet images into the user’s view. “We need to get rid of the single source of truth,” Wang concluded, riffing on the data science cliché. As Anaïs Nin might have remarked, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are” — and nor should we ever forget that there are seven billion versions of subjective reality wandering around the globe today.

Meanwhile, Fernanda Sabiola from Huge and Martin Hoffman of ConvJournalism talked about how one-to-one communication is eclipsing one-to-many, as messaging apps like WhatsApp overtake social networks. For superchef Matthew Orlando of Amass restaurant in Copenhagen, and formerly of Noma, an empathy for the earth we are rapidly destroying translates into his business’s phenomenal drive for sustainability, which involves recycling everything from fishbones to water to tea leaves, and growing locally and organically.

So far, so empathic: feeling into the experiences of others, seeing through their eyes — that was one implicit message at #TheConf.

But what are the limits of empathy in digital today, and what is the truth of it in business? For starters, we probably need to be mindful of overemphasising it to the point of meaninglessness. “Semantic saturation” is the term for the effect where repeating a word over and over eventually drains it of all meaning. Pick one and try it for yourself.

In linguistic terms at least, something similar is happening to “empathy” that has already taken place with fetish words including disruption, creativity and most obviously of all, passion: words, referring to activities and qualities, the use of which is now so ubiquitous as to be banal. Let’s face it, omitting a claim to be “passionate about X” on one’s LinkedIn profile or Twitter bio is a major faux pas these days (and after Brené Brown’s recent TED talk tear-jerker, my money’s on “vulnerability” as being the next prized social-emotional equity).

There are risks if the same happens with empathy, but that’s not to say we don’t need a greater focus on it: we do, and we know that at present, coldhearted computers and some precincts of the feral internet aren’t very good at it. “We need a nicer internet,” argued machine learning UX researcher Caroline Sinders in her talk on creating tools against online harassment. I agree — and after a moment spent in the comments section of The Daily Mail or Guardian, or monitoring trolls on Twitter, who wouldn’t?

But setting aside the view that machines only mime and automate human functions — hence, coldhearted-ness is sadly just as innate to humans as passion and empathy are — it’s also worth repeating that technology discourse is prone to solutionism and even utopianism, with its own “anything is possible/technology will save us” filter bubble.

Which is why some of the certainties around life, business and the future presented at The Conference fell into sharper relief against talks on the gigantic issues stemming from migration, exclusion and the refugee crisis (given by the commentator Latoya Peterson, human rights specialist Dragana Kaurin, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Elena Pedrazzani) — problems demanding solutions with empathy absolutely at their heart.

For example, we heard how it’s a fact that access to information can save refugees’ lives, but also how technological delivery systems are often found wanting in the face of these hardest of human realities: there are no quick workarounds for chaos, and in emergencies human needs center on primitive essentials. Here, designing apps with users, such as the Red Cross are already doing, would mean designing in refugee camps rather than in spacious studios in tech hubs in stable political jurisdictions.

I also wondered about how the current prizing of empathy in technology fits in with the issues of online radicalisation by ISIS and extreme right-wing groups, described by Michael Krona of Malmö University and Maura Conway of Dublin City University respectively: can empathy make a difference here? Should we extend the methodology to empathise with terrorists and extremists, winning the argument through compassion instead of armed force? It would of course be grimly ironic if one day “machine empathy” was put into service tackling human psychopathy.

Indeed, in psychoanalysis as much as service design, we might also ask, can we ever truly know the remote and mysterious Other? And doesn’t trying to know them also risk exoticising them, thereby distancing them yet further?

These questions, along with the fundamental point about whether or not empathy should be commoditised into the service of profit, remained unanswered at The Conference (I’ll come back to that last one). Empathy is wonderful, important and necessary — but to what ends are we deploying it?

Conflict, politics and economics

Among talks on generative design and the future of food, these altogether more serious topics also featured in Guy Standing’s persuasive talk on “Humans, Labour and Technology”, where the University of London professor enlarged on how the current strain of “rentier” capitalism is enslaving a new economic underclass (termed “the Precariat”) to lives of uncertainty, zero-hours contracts, low income and dispossession.

Coincidentally, when I arrived back in my own bubble of south London, I noticed this sign sellotaped to a lamppost seeking support for a strike over fair pay for Deliveroo riders:

Whither empathy at the sharp end of unicorn turbo-capitalism, among Uber, Taskrabbit, Airbnb and other titans of the sharing economy?

At the finale of The Conference, it was telling that one of the hosts walked onto the stage to admit that the event itself was going through some soul-searching; this talking shop might be different next year; it might not even happen, she said. There’s some introspection afoot. The organisers seemed to be wondering what its purpose was, what effect it actually could have beyond generating talk, meetings, prognostications and comment pieces such as this, along with a really good time.

I admired the organisers for their openness and honesty, and it made me reflect that the same question hangs over tech-design-business with its new fetish for empathy in general: acutely aware of its own browser-shaped filter bubble but yearning to transcend it by making a difference in the real world (without being evil), yet often powerless in the face of the truly important global problems of conflict, displacement, inequality, economic strife, political turmoil and so on — in other words, the problems that really need solving. It’s a puzzle.

Far from conferences and design studios on the fringes of the affluent West arrive images of children pulled from rubble and of empty, drifting lifeboats. They reach Malmö, as they do everywhere in the world. Reality bites, and our hearts bleed. The real world remains intractably real, and a genuinely empathic response is needed.

That’s why it’s surely wise to be somewhat skeptical about this new interest in empathy — empathy as buzzword, tactic and fetish; or EaaS (Empathy as a Service); this Empathy-Lite — and also how tech-design-business is instrumentalising this most tender and human of sensibilities, the thing which enables a parent to relate to an upset child, or a nurse to a patient in pain (I don’t know about you, but when Big Tech comes over all empathic and ingratiating to me in a late-night disco, I usually think, “You’re only after one thing — my data”).

Whatever…

In 1994 the French author Michel Houellebecq’s novel Extension du Domaine De La Lutte made a prescient point about commercial intrusion into the intimate workings of social and romantic life, phenomena we might today know as “Facebook” and “Tinder” (the novel's title was changed to "Whatever" for the English edition).

And it strikes me that the same thing is happening now with this new enthusiasm for empathy: it seems well-intentioned and benign, but it looks seductive, and in some cases it’s surely plain old business masquerading as something else.

All of which is why a misreading or misapplication of empathy is more than just misguided, but actively risky. Medium.com overflows with thoughtful pieces on empathy, and empathy’s importance in design in particular. This post, meanwhile, makes a direct causal link between empathy and revenue, or at least its infographic does:

Perhaps I sound cynical. I certainly felt provoked and challenged by some of what I heard at the The Conference, which was sort of the point (I think); I felt my biases needing correcting instead of affirming. These are positive effects. However, I confess I also struggled with some of the other content floated into the beautiful crystalline air of Malmö, a filter bubble which at least recognises that it is one — and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that.

Yet, some optimism is restored when I think back to the talk given by Sha Hwang of Nava, who in the early days of Obamacare pulled together a team and fixed the healthcare.gov website, which was so poorly designed that upon launch less than 10 (yes, ten, not ten million) users managed to get signed up. Soon after the intervention of Hwang’s team, many millions more were able to inscribe themselves. Hwang said that “move fast and fix things” was his team’s methodology, an intriguing détournement of the Facebook maxim.

Hwang’s achievements are impressive in themselves, but it was the way he presented them — calmly, modestly, graciously — that was genuinely impressive. There was no wowing, guilting or horrifying the audience into the perspective change we heard was necessary at the start of the conference. Instead, he showed how he and his team had led by example.

“When systems fail communities, how do we act?” Hwang enquired. It’s a good question, and one that could provide the headline for #TheConf 2017.

In the end, perhaps the best way of really understanding empathy, and therefore being able to define it properly and work with it effectively, is to observe how we use the attentional tractor beam of a smartphone — the thing within which most of these services, apps and platforms currently channeling empathy live. We know how closed and zombie-like people become when engrossed in Pokémon Go or Snapchat while sitting on a bus or walking obliviously down the street. The frequent collisions that occur are merely annoying; the reduced ability to actually connect, person-to-fearful-person, is genuinely problematic. If technology tends to have a de-empathising effect, the question remains whether in human relational terms, a smartphone app can solve the problem of itself. And let’s not forget, we’re the people making and using this stuff.

And perhaps also, the acid test of empathy is not whether the empathiser feels justified and like they’ve made a good job of their empathising, but whether the empathisee feels heard and understood. Isn’t real empathy about a kind of radical selflessness, the shelving of the ego, and the setting aside of one’s needs and opinions to better address the Other’s? My guess is that the millions of Americans who now have healthcare thanks to Sha Hwang and his team’s efforts feel that way: relieved, cared about, enfranchised. Understood.

So if empathy wants to go big today, let it do so for the right reasons. After all, the prospect of some Big Tech exec rampaging across an auditorium stage bellowing “Empathy! Empathy! Empathy” would be unedifying to say the least.

(And sorry. I realise you can’t un-visualise that image now.)

Watch videos from The Conference 2016 here.

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