empathy and electric sheep

So, we had our ‘Do Designers Dream of Electric Sheep’ afternoon at the FuseBox, and it went very well indeed – so well, in fact, that I’ve had big problems trying to boil down everything it made me think about into a single blog post. As it turns out, when you combine ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ and ‘Blade Runner’ with a room full of designers, technologists, philosophers and creatives, you end up with an awful lot to think about.

But that’s actually quite useful. For the next couple of months, the FuseBox is being rebuilt, so I don’t have anywhere to be physically resident. So instead, I’m going to become a virtually resident writer. I’m going to go with the flow and write more than I normally would, publishing three or four blog posts and – if all goes according to plan – a videoblog, both discussing the ‘Do Designers Dream…?’ day in general and talking about where it took me in particular.

And I’m going to start at the beginning, with how we defined its core theme – empathy. We began by trying to find out if we had a shared sense of it. As everyone arrived at the event, we asked them to write down their own definitions of empathy. We ended up with:

Rather than a single understanding of empathy, that left us with many interesting tensions. Is empathy something emotional or rational? Does it happen when you imagine another in your own head, or does it build on a genuine connection between you and another? Is it an exclusively human experience, or is it something other creatures (and perhaps even things) can feel? And so on.

Then, we complicated things even more. FuseBox head Phil Jones kicked things off with an introductory talk, then philosopher Dr Kathleen Stock, critical design practitioner and AI expert Professor Karen Cham, and SF writer me all took a few minutes to talk through our own understandings of empathy.

Phil began by talking about empathy in design, describing both its problems and achievements. On the one hand, every effective piece of design is a small chunk of embodied empathy, an actually present representation of a moment of connection between the designer and their audience. On the other, design often fails. For example, there’s the problem of bro-tech – technology designs by highly privileged twenty-something male designers that only show any sort of empathy for the lives and problems of twenty-something males. Design needs empathy to thrive; but too often it embodies its lack rather than its presence.

Kathleen talked about empathy in a more abstract way. She described two different kinds of empathy – cognitive and affective:

Cognitive empathy involves imagining the experience of another; affective empathy happens when another’s emotion affects you. A key point running through her comments was the role of imagination in empathy – you can never actually experience being someone (or something) else. You can only ever imagine it. And that throws up a fascinating question: How solipsistic is empathy? Does it represent a genuine link with the other, or only an imagined one? And is there any real difference between the two?

And then it was my turn. I discussed how empathy is essential in fiction; to feel involved with a particular story, to want to keep reading on, the reader needs to feel empathy for the people they’re reading about. That led to a very basic description of three act narrative structure:

I create empathy for my characters by showing the reader what they want to do and why it’s so important, then making it difficult for them to do it, and finally exploring what it means for them to actually get it done. Once again, imagination’s a crucial part of that process – as a writer of SF, I ask my readers to imagine unreal futures, and as a writer of fiction I ask them to imagine unreal people and events.

Then it was Karen’s turn. She talked about empathy as something very practical, describing how we can achieve a very exact kind of empathy by using technology to measure people’s physical responses to any particular experience. And she described how technology displays apparent empathy for the world around it as it learns from experience. For her, empathy wasn’t so much about imagination – it’s something very present, practical and measurable.

And those were the definitions of empathy we started out with. More on where they took us to in my next post…

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