Empathy and Human(e) Digitalities

by Nick de Voil 21. May 2013 11:14

For people who design products, services and systems, it's pretty clear by now that empathy is a vital attribute.

By the way, some psychologists like to make a distinction between cognitive empathy and affective empathy. The first is the ability to see the world the way others see it, the second is the ability to feel what others are feeling. I'm not too sure about this distinction - I'm with George Kelly when he says of cognition and affect, "The classic distinction which separates these two constructs has, in the manner of most classic distinctions that once were useful, become a barrier to sensitive psychological inquiry".

How do we develop and fine-tune our capacity for empathy, whether cognitive or affective? One answer, of course, is through the arts - literature, fine art, performance, music - and the study of language. Studying a foreign language means learning to express ideas according to a different set of cultural norms. In the process of doing this, you learn that many ideas that come naturally to an English speaker are literally unthinkable in another language, and vice versa. This is a first step towards the ability, so important for designers, to navigate between multiple ontologies or construct systems. It's not the only way of learning it, but it's a good way.

Languages aren't static. People's linguistic categories don't reflect a clearly indisputable objective reality, but are individually and above all socially constructed in an ongoing process. When someone says something, it's never a simple assertion of a fact. Far from it. We have a context, we have an agenda, we have feelings. And yet when we work on eliciting requirements for systems, the underlying assumption is that that's the case. Intentions, politics and emotions aren't just annoyances that get in the way sometimes, they are intrinsic to the way people experience the world and talk about it.

Great creative writers intuitively understand these processes and expose them in their work. Every piece of dialogue in a good novel or play demonstrates the complex ways in which people convey and construe meaning within a context.

This is why I always find it mystifying when policy-makers and educationalists can't see the practical value of languages and literature studies. The next time someone asks you, "What is the economic value of the humanities?" for goodness' sake don't come up with some feeble stuff about how being able to speak Mandarin or German will help exports. Point them at this post.

At the moment, the most visible area of interdisciplinary research between arts researchers and digital specialists is digital humanities, which seems to mean using technology in the arts. I'd be much more interested in seeing "human(e) digitalities" - the exploration of ways in which hermeneutics, linguistics, social psychology, social theory and philosophy can inform the design of information systems.