Empathy is the buzz at SXSW 2019, but how is it achieved
Mark Murray Jones
13 March 2019

SXSW, the annual conglomerate of festivals held in Austin, has always felt somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, it’s a celebration of artistic creativity and self-expression; on the other, an ever-expanding exposition of emerging technology. In truth, it’s absolutely this diversity that so many have found uniquely rewarding — and that duality that characterizes the event has felt even more profound this year.

It’s my third year here, and there’s no doubt that the relentless and optimistic pace of technological change I’ve witnessed at past events remains — but alongside it, there seems to be an altogether more cautionary, human note.

The clearest demonstration of this must be the ubiquitous use of just one word: empathy, a word that feels like it’s infused the festival, seemingly usurping traditional heavyweights like AI and digital transformation. And having sat through numerous sessions over the past five days, it’s not hard to see why.

"Firstly, empathy is unarguably on the decline in our society. Reflected in numerous studies, our ability to see the world through other people’s eyes has been eroded by increasingly solitary lives, lacking interaction, played out behind pervasive screens."

Naturally this has begun to have a profoundly negative effect on society, contributing to mental health issues related to increased isolation, a rise in divisive tribalism, and a compassion collapse characterized by a numb disconnected feeling towards mass suffering.

It’s also bad for business. If individuals’ empathy levels have declined, it seems corporations have slipped even further. Studies have proven the detrimental effect that low levels of empathy have on business performance.

It appears SXSW has taken this theme to its heart in 2019 — almost as though it has some moral obligation to help us navigate the issue. Perhaps there is a collective feeling of culpability given that the very technological change the event celebrates is also in part responsible for the worrying trends we see in society.

The good news is, however, that empathy isn’t a finite resource. In his session, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Professor of Psychology at Stanford Jamil Zaki assured us we can in fact teach ourselves and our organizations to work on our empathic muscles. Several sessions, Including Professor Zaki’s, offered practical advice, strategies and exercises that could help us regain these forgotten skills.

All of this is encouraging, of course, but there was another factor, well documented at the event, that makes implementing these changes undeniably challenging. Time and again we’ve been reminded that the ability to act faster than the competition, in increasingly complex contexts, has become ever more critical.

"While empathy helps us make better decisions in life or business, the sheer pace we’re operating at doesn’t always make that easy. Making that right decision at speed is harder and more complicated than ever, putting pressure on us as individuals as well as corporations and businesses."

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the eventual savior for this technologically-created dystopia is a different breed of tech. In sessions such as How to Put Empathy Into Business and Empathetic Technology and the End of the Poker Face, Minter Dial and Poppy Crum respectively talked through the opportunity for empathetic AI to interpret our own signals so that in time (by 2022, in fact), machines will know more about us than our own families. Advances in biometric technology will allow us to understand more about one another (and even ourselves) than ever before.

There is a value exchange, of course. Allowing machines to read and interpret the signals we give off can feel deeply uncomfortable and intrusive — an affront to our personal privacy we’re already becoming well versed in. In truth, though, we must be prepared to make that exchange because we will increasingly need help navigating ever greater complexity at speed.

Perhaps SXSW didn’t offer enough answers, but it certainly felt as though there was an understanding that in some way, we’re all complicit in our current predicament — and that the blend of humanity and science that so embodies the festival is most likely where the antidote lies.

The challenge lies in finding the right balance.

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