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Embodied: Technology’s Role In Eroding And Building Empathy

Book cover reads: The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World.
Little A Publishing

Do you say please and thank you to your smart speaker? With each update, technology inches closer towards a greater understanding of the human condition. Empathy remains a trait exclusive to people, but that could change.

In her book “The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World” (Little A/2020), author Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips examines how online discourse can erode empathy — but also how the tech industry can build new products to promote connection and exchange. The author shares examples, like an app for kids that allows users to explore animated homes typical to different countries throughout the world. We continue our Embodied series by looking at how new technological innovations are helping to teach empathy in the classroom and how to avoid tiffs on social media. Host Anita Rao talks with Phillips about what she learned in writing the book and her hopes for the tech-scape in the future.

Interview Highlights

On her nuanced perspective of tech as a millennial:
As someone who grew up with various kinds of technology embedded in my life at different points, I feel like my relationship with it ebbs and flows in these ways where I'm like, it's very empathy promoting — like look at all of the kinds of people I've been exposed to, and the ways that my views have changed about other people. But then also recognizing how dialogue can become really flat, and you [might] not see all of the outcomes of your interactions.

On her experience in a Planned Parenthood-designed virtual reality:
In this reality, hearing the actual sound clips of horrible things people had said [protesting the clinic] definitely had an effect on me. Now, I already had views … It didn't change my mind on anything. But I did hear from some people who had experienced it who didn't necessarily approve of what Planned Parenthood does, but felt so moved by the experience of this person that now they're like: Okay, well, I'm not going to support protesting this. So this kind of thing doesn't flip a switch and people [are changed], but it gets people to ask questions that they maybe wouldn't if they hadn't been exposed to a different kind of experience in that way.

On the evolving human attitude toward anthropomorphized robots:
Another study that I read for the book used little micro-bug robots as these little crawly toys. Everyone complied with the instructions to smash them with a hammer. But most people felt really bad about it and use kind of anthropomorphic words about it, saying: “Oh, I feel bad for killing the robot. It was innocent. It didn't do anything wrong.” Overall, there's not really a consensus about how humans feel about robots. We seem very conflicted. It depends on the situation, depends on the attributes of the robot, how we feel, and how we treat them.

Note: This program originally aired January 30, 2020.

Josie Taris left her home in Fayetteville in 2014 to study journalism at Northwestern University. There, she took a class called Journalism of Empathy and found her passion in audio storytelling. She hopes every story she produces challenges the audience's preconceptions of the world. After spending the summer of 2018 working in communications for a Chicago nonprofit, she decided to come home to work for the station she grew up listening to. When she's not working, Josie is likely rooting for the Chicago Cubs or petting every dog she passes on the street.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
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