Digital natives risk losing empathy for real people

In mid-January, Cheong Suk-Wai wrote an excellent review in The Sunday Times of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Sherry Turkle's important new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power Of Talk In A Digital Age, which served as the topic of ST's most recent The Big Read programme.

The main takeaway from Prof Turkle's study is that digital culture, despite its many virtues, has major downsides, the most serious of which relate to its dehumanising tendencies. Bluntly put, our close embrace of, and increasing reliance on, electronic technology has impaired our ability to relate to one another, particularly in face-to-face conversational settings.

Because such conversations are vital to our moral development -without them, humans have trouble establishing bonds of empathy with other people - life online is impoverishing our lives offline. How? According to Prof Turkle, by imperilling our moral capacity, impeding our ability to work together collectively and rendering fragile the possibility of establishing, let alone maintaining, a vibrant and democratic civic culture. Although Ms Cheong was generally impressed by Prof Turkle's provocative book, she noted that Reclaiming Conversation was "decidedly American-centric" and the book would have had "more intellectual heft" had the author "broadened her discussion to include how those in, say, Eastern cultures deal with information overload".

Ms Cheong's points are well taken. Given the profound role that information and communications technology has played in parts of Asia in recent years and the robust, indeed, ravenous digital culture that has emerged in some "Eastern cultures", a pivot to Asia, as it were, would be worthwhile for assessing the overall efficacy of Prof Turkle's argument. Nowhere more so in Asia than in Singapore.

Indeed, one doesn't have to spend much time in Singapore to appreciate the hold of digital culture. The fact that Singapore always ranks at or near the top of the list among "most-wired nations" and places with the greatest penetration of mobile broadband is only the beginning.

Time spent online has high opportunity costs, especially at the expense of face-to-face interaction, according to Prof Sherry Turkle.
Time spent online has high opportunity costs, especially at the expense of face-to-face interaction, according to Prof Sherry Turkle. ST FILE PHOTO

Singapore and Singaporeans are totally steeped in digital culture - in education, in business, in the ways government services are accessed, in the ways entertainment is consumed, in short, in the way life is lived. Clearly, the Infocomm Development Authority's ambitious Intelligent Nation 2015 masterplan, launched in 2006, is well on its way to being met.

As a matter of fact, its purview is constantly being expanded and the aspirational milestones attached are constantly being redefined upward. The above considerations, and first-hand experience, suggest that the threats identified by Prof Turkle regarding digital culture are, if anything, more ominous in Singapore than in the United States. That the average American adult checks his or her smartphone every 6.5 minutes, and that US college students typically study while multitasking on four or five other media - maybe Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter - wouldn't surprise many Singaporeans, except maybe to seem a bit on the low side.

Indeed, the fact that surveys have found that over 10 per cent of Americans - nearly 20 per cent of young adults aged 18-34 - have answered their smartphones or texted during sex would raise few eyebrows in Singapore either but, more likely, knowing nods.

So what do these data mean? Little in and of themselves but, according to Prof Turkle, all of this time online has high opportunity costs, particularly because it comes at the expense of face-to face human communication.

Tell me, Singaporeans, which one of you has not observed at a hawker centre, or even a restaurant, a party of six diners, at least three of whom - and sometimes four or five or even all six - are wielding their smartphones at the same time without much consideration for their partners?

It is hard to build up one's capabilities to communicate spontaneously and in unedited form with real live humans while one is busy curating one's food photos, ordering a movie, texting, or "liking" something on Facebook.

There is not so much empathy with other humans when the norm is "continuous partial attention" - in Prof Turkle's words - to anyone and anything.

Welcome to the digital age.

Moreover, the possibility exists that such problems are exacerbated in Singapore because of one of the characteristic tendencies associated with Singaporeans: frequent code-switching, as it is called.

This concept, borrowed from linguistics, describes situations wherein individuals move back and forth between two or more languages in a single conversation.

Code-switching is an impressive skill and many Singaporeans, of course, do it all the time.

Moreover, Singapore being Singapore and Singaporeans being Singaporeans, the population often extends its code-switching behaviour well beyond the world of language per se to include food, clothing and culture in general. It is Singapore as a linguistic/cultural mash-up, in other words.

If this is in fact the case - and if Prof Turkle's argument is valid - Singapore may face some serious moral and political challenges ahead. How, for example, can the population in one of the most wired, broadband-equipped, digitally-enriched landscapes in the world - a population, moreover, that code-switches like crazy - establish and maintain empathy with other human beings?

On the one hand, code-switching seems an attempt to build bridges but, on the other hand, it creates at least the possibility of partial cultural congruence, if not cultural dissonance. Complicating the above considerations is another possible consequence of our increasing digital dependency: changes in our neuro systems.

In his 2010 book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argued that our digital lives are changing our "wiring", making focus and concentration on anything or anyone increasingly difficult for humans (Homo digitalis?).

Such momentous developments, not surprisingly, have potential political consequences as well.

Most notably, how can a humane and mutually respectful public culture be expanded and democratised when people lack empathy for one another and are at best partially engaged?

"Only connect", as E. M. Forster put it in 1910 in Howards End. Will Singaporeans do so merely literally, or figuratively as well? Stay tuned.

• The writer is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He visits Singapore often, and was Raffles Professor of History at the National University of Singapore in 2005.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2016, with the headline 'Digital natives risk losing empathy for real people'. Print Edition | Subscribe