Turning inner space into outer space

January 31, 2015

Bill Gates is right about 'missing creativity' in use of technology to create empathy

Bill Gates promotes his participation in Ask Me Anything on Reddit.

As an Internet forum, it’s hard to take Reddit seriously. As I write this, one of the top posts is a picture of a hamster poking its head out of a little wooden house and appearing to wave hello. (Go ahead and look, but come back because I have a point to make.)

Where Reddit really shines is with a regular feature called Ask Me Anything. Some genuinely important and interesting people volunteer to answer questions from the public, including the president of the United States.

Bill Gates, the philanthropist and founder of Microsoft, was back for his third AMA on Thursday. No doubt he keeps coming back because he knows it’s a good way to connect with the public about his work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s a cause definitely worth supporting, but Gates noted a problem that I’m sure is common to many charitable organizations.

Here’s the question, typical of the breezy Reddit style:

Hi bill! First off, thanks for being an awesome human being!!! But onto my question: What innovation has been brought to you but sadly never worked out for what ever reason, but you really wanted it to work? Thanks! And keep being awesome!

And the answer:

So far we have not (been) able to use technology to connect people to the needs of the poorest in countries that are far away to tap into their empathy. I think this can be done but it needs some missing creativity.

Indeed, this is a conundrum that many journalists have wrestled with. How do you make people care about the troubles of their fellow human beings — whether they live in the same community or in a village half way around the world?

You can’t overdo it, because people will get tired of the whole thing and tune it out. There is even a term for this: compassion fatigue. In fact, journalists are sometimes blamed for creating the situation by flooding us with images and stories of suffering and crisis. Journalists themselves fall victim to this syndrome when they become cynical and use expressions such as “sob story” or “disease of the week.”

It’s tempting to point the finger at modern technology for making the saturation of tragic news possible, but this is a quandary that was recognized even in George Orwell’s time.

In response to Gates’ comment on Reddit, another person posted a quote from Orwell that was published in 1947 — referring to the aftershocks of the Second World War. Here it is in part:

Tales of starvation, ruined cities, concentration camps, mass deportations, homeless refugees, persecuted Jews — all this is received with a sort of incurious surprise, as though such things had never been heard of but at the same time were not particularly interesting. The now-familiar photographs of skeleton-like children make very little impression. As time goes on and the horrors pile up, the mind seems to secrete a sort of self-protecting ignorance which needs a harder and harder shock to pierce it, just as the body will become immunised to a drug and require bigger and bigger doses.

Part of the problem is that even if we do allow ourselves to think about such things, a sense of hopelessness can sink in because there is little we can do about them. When Ebola broke out in West Africa, many people seemed more concerned about stopping its spread to North America than about those who were actually afflicted with the disease. It might seem like the height of selfishness, but in a way it is understandable. Eradicating a disease in a far-off land is really hard and may not be possible. Stopping Ebola victims from entering Canada seems a lot more do-able, and of more immediate benefit.

I agree with Gates that there is some “missing creativity” when it comes to using technology to create caring connections between citizens of rich and poor countries. Anyone have some ideas?