Empathy vs entropy

An interesting starting point for discussion is Jeremy Rifkin’s recent book (The Empathic Civilization) in which he describes two trends throughout history and looks at the correlation between both. On the one hand we have empathy and on the other hand there is entropy. The book is rather long and repetitive but Rifkin is very skilled in explaining the entire thesis in about 10 minutes. I will let him explain it first.

The first few chapters of the book provide a review of recent work on mirror neurons and a discussion of the implications of the existence of such mirror neurons on our view of human nature. According to Rifkin the human drive for empathic connection has led to an ever-increasing improvement in communication methods. What he tries to point out throughout the book is that this increase in empathic connection generally goes along with an increasing entropy bill as we need more and more energy to bring more people together. For every type of civilization expanding its empathic reach, this entropy bill has set a limit. These limits have up to this day never been absolute limits. With time, technology and science have provided new energy paradigms that allow us to move beyond the previous limit. And together with those new energy paradigms, new communication and transportation methods emerged, making the world a smaller place and inter-connecting an increasing portion of humanity. The returning theme however, is that as civilizations approach a new limit, they are generally ill-prepared to deal with that limit. Rarely is there a smooth transition from one form of civilization to the next. And it’s not very hard to imagine that we are headed towards a new limit at breakneck speed.

Discussions about peak oil, increasing raw material prices, depleted oceans, population growth and man-made global warming all make it abundantly clear that exponential growth is simply not a long-term option. Additionally, the recent economic trouble has already made it clear that a financial and monetary system based on debt as money is entirely predicated on the expectation of exponential growth and is thus not well-suited for a world that is slowing down (willingly or otherwise). Running into these limits will inevitably lead to man showing his true nature. It will challenge us all to choose between our primary empathic drives and our secondary negative drives. Will we revert to nationalism or even religious associations? Is the EU opting not to give up on Greece a sign that empathy can overcome nationalism? Is the lack of success of Rick Santorum and hateful Republicans in general a sign that empathy can overcome the divisiveness of religion?

It seems like a very large factor in all of this will be our emerging new communication paradigm. The internet is rapidly becoming one of the main players in deciding which part of our human nature will dominate the future. It can and is in fact being used to promote both the empathic drive and the secondary negative drives. Rifkin uses the example of the earthquake in Haiti since his talk for the RSA was shortly after that earthquake. We have since seen many more examples of this during the Arab spring where social media websites have played an impressive role. The same can be said for what happened during the Occupy movement. Despite all these nice examples of how the internet allowed people from all over the world to empathically connect with one another, there are also examples of the internet doing the opposite. Religious fundamentalists can just as easily use the internet to connect to one another to terrorize and destroy global empathy. The internet is crawling with message boards, youtube channels and twitter accounts that are notorious for attracting like-minded hateful people looking to empower their us versus them feelings. Spouting hateful shit anonymously is so much easier than doing it in person.

At the same time a majority of young internet users are not properly educated to deal with information on the internet. We are so eager to show that we empathize with the plight of others that something like Kony 2012 can be a viral campaign. As long as something is well-made, looks good, doesn’t bore us with details and plays on our emotions, we’ll forgo any critical thinking or fact-checking. We’ll share it with all our friends and help something become a global phenomenon and force it into the public square without properly understanding the implications or even exactly what it is we’re dealing with. Kony 2012 to me was a warning shot showing how powerful a tool social media can be both for good and bad. The potential reach of propagandists has increased since we have become so used to taking things online at face value. Educate your kids, friends and family on how to deal with social media.

So are we headed for another age of darkness or can we ride the momentum of empathic expansion that the internet has offered us into the next energy paradigm? I do believe that the internet for me is much more about empathy (which is why I like watching people like Philip DeFranco, Julian Smith, Ze Frank and Toby Turner) than about feeding my fear for “the other” (although I do watch The Young Turks who are so good at making me a cold cynic).

Tell me what you think! How do you use the internet?