It starts with the apparently long-standing evolutionary motivations humans have for struggling to empathize with people that seem too different from them.
For a long span of our evolutionary history, homo sapiens evolved in tribal settings where the other members of the species they were most likely to encounter were either blood relatives, trading partners, or mortal enemies.
Sometimes, these lines would blend together, but for the most part, the groups of humans that cooperated effectively with relatives and close trading partners outlasted, assimilated, or exterminated the ones that did a poorer job at the same game.
A lot of smart research has been done on the evolution of cooperation and the game theory behind the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, but the long-and-short of it is that for most of the history of our species, humans have done a much better job cooperating with people who looked at least vaguely like them and spoke approximately the same language they did.
Along that same thread, we’ve also historically done a great job relegating those who didn’t share our appearance, language (and, more recently, values and increasingly narrow identity groups) into the category of “others,” worthy of fear, distrust, harsh judgment, violence, and even total annihilation.
Our species’ evolutionary legacy presents some practical but potentially surmountable obstacles to universal compassion in the 21st century world.
Indeed, while notions of the “in-group” now extend a lot further than they once did — sometimes as far as the borders of a huge nation — our collective selves still haven’t grasped that these distinctions have, at this point in our trajectory, become a dangerous mirage.
Many astute observers of the human scene have made the case that, while civilization going nuclear at global scale is always a possibility, many of the defining conflicts of the 21st century will not be between large nations, but between the “haves” who’ve got it good and the “have-nots” who feel excluded.
While the jury of the future is still out on that one, as America and the West witnessed to our collective horror on 9/11/2001, the dispossessed, given enough hatred and access to the wrong kinds of weapons, can and will unleash all kinds of havoc.
On the medium-term horizon, as the expertise necessary to manipulate biology (and with it, deadly pathogens) develops and then disperses throughout the world, there is a non-zero probability that it will fall into hands ready and willing to use it for tremendously bad things.
For all the talk among the elite technorati about the dangers posed to humanity by super-intelligent A.I. (and these dangers certainly may come about at some point), the bigger, more immediate threat to the survival of our civilization are sufficiently-funded and motivated collectives of traumatized, angry, and dispossessed human beings.
How Virtual Reality Can Create Empathy
Virtual Reality done right is a tremendous breakthrough in storytelling technology, and the key to doing it right is simulated “presence.”
In case you are unfamiliar with the jargon around VR, “presence” is the sense you get that you are actually there: Your mind believes, despite the geographic location of your body, that it is present in the simulated reality your eyes are seeing.
There are a number of substantial technical hurdles to maintaining nausea-free presence in virtual reality, but multiple well-funded organizations full of brilliant engineers, designers and product people are well-incentivized to line them up and knocking them down. It may only be a matter of time, engineering, and money before they crack presence well enough to ship a device.
So what does all this have to do with empathy?
Again, it comes down to presence.
Despite the occasional (frequent?) bouts of emotional clumsiness, stupidity, ignorance, and mindlessness that all humans share, the majority of us want the same things for ourselves and our children: to be at peace, to be safe, to have food and shelter and love and hope and respect.
This is true everywhere in the world: the differences that culture and environment create in us are meaningful, but far less profound than the similarities borne of millions of years of shared evolution.
The problem is that while it’s easy to say that we are all fundamentally the same, it’s much harder to feel it in your bones.
Harder, that is, until you can strap on a virtual reality headset and see for yourself.
Of course, each of us is (for now?) relegated to the confines of our own individual consciousness, so feeling the totality of someone else’s subjective experience — all of their sensations, thoughts, moods, etc — is (for now?) impossible.
But seeing the the world through someone else’s eyes would be a good start.
So imagine a scene:
There you are, in your chair, Oculus Rift strapped to your face.
On the high-resolution screen before your eyes, powered by the most powerful graphics processors money can buy, is a large gathering of people, and they are celebrating.
You look around.
On your left, people are dancing and smiling. A young girl dressed in a Saari notices you and grins a toothy smile.
On your right, a happy-looking older woman is beckoning you to come in for a hug. In front of you is a couple — the newlyweds — talking with two older folks who look like they could be the groom’s parents.
The upbeat music, the din of happy chatter, and the sounds of feet hitting the dance floor in rhythm fills your ears.
You start walking towards the older woman, whose arms are open to greet you. You see what appears to be your own arms in front of you, going in for the hug.
Then the explosion.
The entire universe seems to be shaking at once as a fireball from the Hellfire missile detonating rips into the room.
The sounds that had just been festive and joyful are obliterated, replaced by the the bang-thud-crunch of heavy things crashing, screams, and the whoosh of air sending the person’s whose perspective you are experiencing flying backwards.
Darkness. /end scene
Why A Widespread Understanding Of Our Common Humanity Matters So Utterly Much
The difference between reading the above or seeing it play out on TV and FEELING it happen in virtual reality is orders of magnitude of intensity: When you read it, you have to work to imagine what it is like. When you see it on a TV or movie screen, it’s easy to create distance.
But when you are virtually present in the scene, watching it happen as if through your own eyes, immersed in the sights and noises…you experience some part of the terror and sadness first hand.
That is the difference between understanding our shared humanity on an intellectual level and feeling it in your bones.
Before the 21st century, the experiences of the children living in remote villages in Yemen or the mountains of Pakistan had for all intents and purposes no potential to impact the lives of the denizens of Manhattan.
But in the 21st century, this changes.
If these children, whose minds are developing in a world of persistent fear, trauma, and drone-delivered death, grow to hate America, this hatred can metastasize into terrorism that lands on our shores and our cities.
To most Americans living at home, the reality of these children’s lives, living in the shadow of Predator drones, is utterly invisible. Even if we hear about it on TV or in the written news (and we rarely do), it’s easy and natural to disconnect from it and compartmentalize it as “just the way it is.”
For most of human history, this tendency — to remove oneself emotionally from the suffering of people in the out-group — was not only natural, it was necessary: people in the out-group were often your mortal enemies, and dehumanizing mortal enemies helped our ancestors survive.
But in the 21st century, more so than at any other time in human history, we are one world: because of technological diffusion and globalization, the suffering of people on one side of the planet can and will spill over as violence to the other side.
At this stage in our cultural evolution, the human species still hasn’t quite grasped its fundamental interconnectedness: We still divide ourselves along ethnic, national, linguistic, and religious lines.
Sure, we can talk about how these distinctions have become destructive. Some of us may even believe it.
But without the ability to connect deeply with the experiences of humans we’ve never met, whose realities we’ve never felt — it’s hard to sense our shared humanity more deeply than that.
On the one hand, we have no choice: if we collectively fail to acknowledge our shared humanity, to understand and challenge the circumstances that take a human baby and transform it over the years into a suicide bomb, we almost ensure that bomb will eventually explode catastrophically at our door.
On the other hand, it is a choice: if we choose to exercise the best parts of our brains — our capacities for empathy, compassion, mindfulness, and fellow-feeling — and extend these capacities across the lines that have divided us for most of our time on Earth — we have the potential to create abundance, dramatically reduce suffering, and build a far more humane world.
Universal compassion does not come easy, but we have the capability for it.
We’re just going to need to some better tools.