The new age of empathy

I’ve been rolling past videos on Facebook and Twitter for a while now, wondering why social media is so fascinated by puppies being saved from floods, babies hearing for the first time and grandmothers who have something sassy and wise to say about body acceptance. And, recently, I’ve come to realize what is going on.

Whether it seems like it or not, we are entering a new age of empathy. Our nervous systems, once self-contained and controlled, have expanded on essentially a global scale and every twitch on some distant shore is felt in the grey matter between our eyes. Although the internet is generally known as a cesspool of trolls and racism, it is also a way to connection to billions of people. On the internet you can find others like you and others who like you. On the internet you can talk to amazing artists as if you were friends and they talk back. On the internet no one knows you’re a dog — and if they knew, they’d send an MP3 of a special ultrasonic whistle just for you.

Last week I addressed the fact that, on the surface, the internet isn’t much fun. It’s full of anonymous trolls and angry rhetoric and the most inane ideas quickly gain a cult following thanks to exponentially growing Twitter accounts. In short, the internet sucks.

But even in my grumpy state I notice I tear up at nice things in the news. I tear up at people talking forcefully about politics. I tear up at school shootings and refugee crises and little girls who get 3D-printed arms. I’m not ashamed of this fact, but I was confused by it. Why was my nervous system so jacked up that everything had a real effect on me? What was going on?

The internet is an emotion-generation machine. It sends a torrent of things at us, good and bad, and the hivemind bubbles the good things to the surface and buries the bad. This isn’t always the case, to be clear, but, most recently, I think the hivemind of social media is reacting to negative stimuli and building up defenses. I think the internet, as a whole, is trying to show us we’re not all bad.

Before we start talking about SkyNet, perhaps there’s a biological answer to this odd behavior. First, we know that our brains are changed by internet use. A study published in 2011 showed us that “internet savvy middle-aged and older adults showed dramatically greater brain activity when searching online compared with age-matched ‘internet-naïve’ volunteers.”

“When these older naïve volunteers started searching online for an hour a day, after only one week their frontal lobe neural circuits showed significant activity increases during internet searching,” wrote the researchers. “Brains of any age seem sensitive and reactive to exposure to technology.”

Further, another study found that “going online had little impact upon empathy and improved face-to-face communication.” In other words, the internet doesn’t rot your brain and can make it better.

In the market of ideas, hate rarely wins. The best books, the books that stay with us, are tinged with both comedy and sorrow, humor and anger. We remember things that make us feel. The internet, in its petulant and infantile glory, is slowly moving toward that ideal.

I want to think that humanity is getting better. This is objectively true. Our access to 24/7 media blows war and unrest all out of proportion to its real effects and we worry far too much about things that will never touch us. We live in constant fear of a world that has, in the words of futurist Ben Hammersley, become overrun with cafes, coffee and croissants. Ask any Digital Nomad: You can interchangeably move from one country to the next and feel, if not at home, then safe enough to venture out for a soft drink.

In the end, this new era of empathy might be a mirage, a calm before the dystopian storm. Or it could be a signpost aiming us forward, unto higher heights and better worlds. The answer is within us and how we choose to react in this moment. We are the ones who take the darkened hill and shout “Excelsior.” The internet is the lantern in our hands.