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Empathy in the Virtual World

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Professor G. Anthony Gorry of Rice University's Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning is concerned that our empathy toward other people — and our ability to care for each other — is being corroded by prolonged exposure to the Internet and multimedia. "As technology exposes us to the pain and suffering of so many others, it might also numb our emotions, distance us from our fellow humans, and attenuate our empathetic responses to their misfortunes," he writes.

Conversely, there is the possibility that digital technology could actually increase our empathy by engaging our imagination to facilitate more respect for other people's misfortunes. Gorry cites the flood of sympathy and grief attending the death of Princess Diana as an example. On the other hand, if our empathy is increasingly channeled into artificial worlds, identities, and stories made seemingly real by technological innovations, then actual people and events will receive far less empathy, cautions Gorry.

"Technology is replacing the traditional social structures of the face-to-face community with more-fluid electronic arenas for gossip, preening, and posturing," he says. Gorry concludes that sustaining empathy in the Internet era may require us to discard old modes of thought and avoid a crippling desire for the past. "As McLuhan argued, we cannot drive into the future looking in the rearview mirror," he observes. "But we can remember the road we have traveled."

From The Chronicle of Higher Education
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Abstracts Copyright © 2009 Information Inc., Bethesda, Maryland, USA


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