Turning inner space into outer space

February 7, 2015

When creating empathy, technology just comes along for the ride

Last week I talked about how Bill Gates, the entrepreneur and philanthropist, would like to see technology used more creatively to encourage empathy between and rich and poor parts of the world.

Gates may be looking at this problem from the wrong angle. Technology is a set of tools at our disposal — used as needed, not as an end in itself.

The first thing we should look at is empathy itself, because we already know how that works. The people we care about are those closest to us — family, friends, neighbours, co-workers. We develop feelings for almost anyone we are in regular contact with. Admittedly, they are not always positive feelings, but that’s a different story.

But what about people who are far away? It gets harder to keep in touch with friends and family when there is distance involved, but it’s certainly possible with some effort.

In Kamloops, we do this on an institutional level in our sister city relationship with Uji, Japan. Through cultural exchanges, we have come to know each other better. And I’m willing to bet that if Uji were to suffer some misfortune, people in Kamloops would feel concerned and want to help out.

Of course, Uji is in a rich country with plenty of resources at hand if it were to suffer some sort of disaster. And day-to-day, the residents there likely enjoy a good quality of life.

But what if Kamloops were to establish a sister city relationship with a city in, for example, Haiti? The relationship would no doubt be different as that city’s challenges came to light. As we got to know them better, we would feel compelled to help with things like ensuring there is clean drinking water or school supplies for the children.

If sister city status became official, then City Hall, the school district and the hospital might set aside a small part of their budgets toward improving services in the Haitian city. Or they might facilitate volunteer efforts.

What would we get out of it? Helping others is a good way to boost morale, but beyond that there may be opportunities for education, skills training and business.

And what about technology? We might wind up using old-fashioned technology, such as an exchange of letters between school children. More probably, communication would take the form of email exchanges, a Facebook page, Skype calls or videos posted to YouTube. That’s something we would figure out as we go along — moulding technology to overcome obstacles.

The tough part would be finding a sister city. I thought of Haiti because it is one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s located in the Caribbean Sea, which is close to North America. The main language is French, which is familiar to many Canadians.

But it could just as easily be some other city. And who knows? If we put together a good plan, maybe Bill Gates will pitch in.