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Valley Voice The web needs better tools for empathy

After the Paris attacks people show solidarity online by changing the color of their Facebook profile. The digital society needs better tools.
Every Tuesday, Handelsblatt technology reporter Britta Weddeling writes about the trends and oddities of Silicon Valley from a German perspective.
The Voice of the Valley

Every Tuesday, Handelsblatt technology reporter Britta Weddeling writes about the trends and oddities of Silicon Valley from a German perspective.

I am a time traveler. In the morning, when it is dark outside and white shiny busses turn the corner in front of my apartment with Google’s employees on their way to Mountain View, I talk to my colleagues in Germany over the phone. In Düsseldorf, at their end of the line, the clock already shows 2 pm. Sometimes they ask me about the weather and life in general. I love small-talk. But 5 am is tough.

Time travelling can be strange. When the first tweets about Paris and the attacks appeared on my phone’s screen on Friday I was in between meetings, walking down a busy street in San Francisco. People crossed my path who didn’t know yet about the catastrophe. I met a kissing couple, giggling teenagers and the jazz dude with the out-of-tune G string in front of the mall.

There I was, a time traveler in the middle of the sugar-coated shopping world, and on my phone Europe was about to explode. All these pictures and real-time videos, retweeted and shared online, multiplied by social media, all the sure and not-so-sure pieces of digital information flooded my timeline.

Kurz und schmerzhaft: alle Kolumnen


Shortly after the attack Facebook was awash with the colors of the French flag after the network enabled a function which lets users put a tricolor filter on their profile pictures. And thousands retweeted, shared and liked the black peace sign in the shape of the Eiffel tower. It was a great way to show immediate solidarity. But at the same time it felt too simple and automated.

“Digital data-overload doesn’t evoke compassion”, explains Gregor Hochmuth, a data scientist from New York, who worked with Google and Instagram, when I called him a few days later. “Instead of empathy this just creates a greed for more information and a certain kind of voyeurism.” He knows what he is talking about; he showed the mechanism in an internet-project.

For the “Network Effect” Hochmuth and the artist Jonathan Harris crawled more than 10 000 video-clips and detected 100 everyday human movements, such as “eat”, “swim” or “kiss” and connected them with queries in Google News and Twitter. “We wanted to create an empathetic library of everything humans do on the internet. But as it turned out the result never felt warm or human.”

“Network Effect” is a gigantic infographic users can click through with an endless number of layers that feels like a journey through a schizophrenic brain. While Greg was trying to show human life and create sympathy the result was the exact opposite. He sees the same effects right now after Paris attacks. “When people change the color of their Facebook profile or retweet a hashtag, it feels automated, distant and cold and you can sense the machine behind it.”

I agree. We, as travelers from here to there, online and offline, to the future and back, have to look for new ways to express our feelings online. In times of the omnipresence of the machine the digital society has to search for a new empathy. More than ever before.

Es gibt auch eine deutsche Version dieser Kolumne.

Britta Weddeling is a technology journalist with Handelsblatt, Germany's #1 business daily, based in San Francisco. She is author of a weekly English tech column called "Valley Voice" and contributes every week to a podcast at a major German radio station (Deutschlandradio,"Was mit Medien").

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