What Is “The Empathy Gap” & What Role Does Technology Play In Fostering It?

"Modern technology" typically conjures images of sleek robots or shimmering holograms. It’s all about touch screens and drones. It's efficient and inhuman. But, on the contrary, right now, we’re watching contemporary tech aim itself towards something new: Intimacy.
From our respective quarantine spaces, we're using tablets, laptops, and smart phones to remain close with friends and family who are no longer safe to socialize with in the flesh. We’re going on dates, celebrating birthdays, and attending meetings by way of our screens. We’re utilizing technology to foster relationships and, according to a recent study from tech company Lenovo, to cultivate a more empathetic generation on the whole.
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That said, for all the connectivity technology provides, it has long been speculated that it also can create distance. Sure, by way of video chat, you can see and talk to someone across the world in a matter of seconds. But there’s still a lingering sense of disconnect when it comes to truly comprehending the lives of others outside of our circles. Our digital feeds are curated to our tastes and our viewpoints — the news we consume — and in that sense, our social media accounts and app profiles can make us believe that our stances are the only stances. They can allow us to hide behind the anonymity of a comment board or a vague username — which begs the question, while technology is helping us reach one another, is it making those connections less intimate? Less deep? Has our tech been bringing us both closer and further from one another at the same time?  
Often, this very disconnect from other folks is referred to as “the empathy gap,” which Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at specialized tech research firm, Creative Strategies, describes as one’s inability to put themself in the shoes of people who are not like them. In her line of work, it’s been traditionally speculated that our increasingly digitized world can widen that gap — that forms of technology like dating apps and social media platforms can make us less human. But, as of late, it would seem that things are changing. Newer forms of technology are helping to rewrite that narrative. 
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And Lenovo's study, titled New Realities: Tech and Empathy Research Report, focused on just that. The company reached out to over 15,000 respondents in ten markets around the globe about the nature of compassion as it relates to their personal tech-usage — and they determined that two-thirds felt technology had made people more empathetic towards different viewpoints in their communities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
More recently, Lenovo has explored how smart technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) could pave the way towards a more empathetic future. Just months ago, the company brought a fully immersive film series entitled New Realities to life with American filmmaker Ava DuVernay as its ambassador. The 360-degree storytelling project focuses on the lives of young women in 10 different countries across the globe as they use smart technology to tackle burning issues in their communities. Think: a Japanese robotics student designing and 3-D printing PPE face masks and distributing them en masse around the country, or a young American woman developing an app to support students who aren't getting proper training and guidance in school.
And unlike your traditional film, the project utilizes VR technology to make you feel like the events unfolding on screen are taking place in your living room. The medium allows viewers to see the world from the point of view of the subjects in 360 degrees — effectively eliminating the distance technology sometimes creates and dropping you smack in the middle of the story. 
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"It’s about technology enabling empathy and empowering the world’s young leaders to make change.”

“At Lenovo, we strive to be more than just a technology provider. We want to empower people to use smart technology for positive change,” says Dilip Bhatia, the brand’s Chief Customer Experience Officer. “This research validates the need for our role to go beyond powering the technology needs of the world; it’s about technology enabling empathy and empowering the world’s young leaders to make change.” Which is why the company also provided the film series' participants with change-making technology to help them each carry out their missions (think enterprise-grade ThinkPad X1 Yoga laptops for coding, and Yoga C940 models for music production).
“VR is making it possible to live out the old adage ‘walk a mile in someone’s shoes’,” adds Marcelino Alvarez, Chief Product Officer at tech consulting firm Fresh Consulting. “How might we see the world if you could see it through the lens of someone who has a different upbringing? An entirely different culture? How could you do so in a way that uses more than just the senses we normally use when we’re watching a normal 2D film or documentary?”
The idea is simple: Utilizing VR, we can place our audiences in spaces that feel intimidating or uncomfortable — brutally up close. And often, that’s where empathy lies. “VR storytelling can have a much bigger impact than traditional storytelling because it’s so immersive. You can’t help but feel you’re part of what you’re experiencing,” Alvarez says, noting that she recently participated in an 360-degree screening that allowed viewers to experience what it was like to sit on the back of an American city bus in the ‘60s. As she explains it, this is the sort of thing that could change how we teach history — how we relate to past events. Much like with Lenovo's New Realities, its impact lies in its immersive quality.
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Sure, VR technology is not widely available just yet. But still, it fits into a larger conversation about the ways services that are already in our households — Videochatting mechanisms and virtual watch parties — are allowing us to take some initial steps towards bridging the empathy gap that perhaps we haven’t taken before. Sure, they may not be helping us to walk miles in one another’s shoes, but right now, particularly while our modes of intimacy are so limited, we’re using these platforms in new capacities. They’re our centerpoints of connectivity — and they’re teaching us that onscreen communication doesn’t have to be cold or unfeeling. 
“I think [technology] can also help with generational gaps,” Alvarez says. “I can videochat with my 93-year-old grandma and she might not understand the underlying technology that allows that to happen, nor does my four-year-old, but they understand that there’s a person on the other side and that person is interacting with them and they’re sharing emotions.”
Forms of digital communication have their flaws, to be sure — social media platforms are complicated, nuanced spaces, and forums like comment boards can breed hostility under the veil of anonymity. But on the whole, it would seem that modern technology is working towards bringing us face to face with some inequities we’ve long avoided. Platforms like Lenovo's New Realities are carving out space for us to broaden the scopes of our worlds. That’s where empathy is built. And from empathy, comes real, tangible change.
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