By day, I am a technology lawyer. I deal with cutting-edge communication systems, information processes and the movement of data. The nature of the craft also requires me to work with others to negotiate conflicts and disputes. Through those two functions I have become profoundly interested in what technology does to the way people relate to one another.
I am by no means a Luddite. Through the wonders of technology I was able to go back to the University of Pennsylvania to earn my masters, while still working at home in North Carolina. From my laptop I am also able to keep close contact with friends in India and Israel and Norway who would otherwise be inaccessible to me.
But something significant is lost when we no longer have to look one another in the eye. I have seen my teenager receive both insults and apologies electronically from someone he thought was his friend, when they could have spoken face-to-face that same day.
The same technology that so wonderfully places the world right at our feet, tends to push aside other aspects of human interactions – the facial expressions, the tone of voice, a well-timed touch on the shoulder. Strengths of humanity such as kindness, generosity and compassion require a certain orientation of empathy between the self and the other. Likewise, our strengths of fairness, citizenship and loyalty, all depend upon the social bonds we form to groups and to the broader community.
How can our children develop these sort of empathic bonds with others if their interactions are with a screen rather than real-life, flesh-and-blood people? At an age when my son needs to be learning how to connect with others and how to navigate the difficult moments that do occur in human relations, technology adds still more hurdles.
Photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand had an idea. While stranded in Mali in the 1980’s, Arthus-Bertrand spent an evening listening to another man’s life story. It was during a drought and the poverty was severe. But the fears, dreams and memories offered were not a complaint. They were not a request for anything. Rather, what was shared was a connection between two small people, next to a fire, from vastly different places, but with worlds in common.
Since then, Arthus-Bertrand has recorded interviews with 6000 people from 65 countries, many of which can be found on the website 6 Billion Others. Each person tells his or her earliest memories, dreams, and what they believe happens after they die. They talk about the last time they cried, and what they learned from their parents. The aim, according to the website, is to create a “sensitive and human portrait of the earth’s inhabitants.”
Of course, when visiting the site, the communication is only one way, and your interaction is with a screen. Yet, there is an honesty and an intimacy there that connects and elevates. The interviews also offer a chance for increased understanding and empathy. Peterson and Seligman (2004) point out that empathy is biased toward those who are similar to the self. At first blush, many of the people interviewed do not appear to be like me. Kole, an Ethiopian herdsman, speaks with pride and joy about his goats. My children giggled when they first saw Maremba, from Papua New Guinea with his bone through his nose. Yet what is communicated so honestly are the ways in which we all are the same. Kole taught me about gratitude and the ability to rejoice in simple things. When Maremba spoke about his father, I found that I too had to fight off tears.
The 6 Billion Others exhibition will be on display at the Grand Palais in Paris from January 10, 2009 until Feburary 12, 2009. Until then, enjoy . . .
Peterson, C. and Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook of classification. New York: Oxford University Press.
Images are drawn from the 6 Billion Others site.