Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Wired World in 2013, a special edition of Wired Magazine (UK edition).
Empathy is about to hit the big time. The view that we are essentially self-interested creatures is being overturned by evidence that we are also homo empathicus, wired for empathy, social co-operation and mutual aid. Neuroscientists have identified a ten-section “empathy circuit” in our brains, and evolutionary biologists such as Frans de Waal have shown that we naturally evolved to care for each other.
This shift is starting to filter out from science and into psychology, business and social action. Smart advertising agencies talk about “empathic brands” that respond to their customers’ needs and make them feel socially connected – in 2013 they will be marketing them to you. Bill Drayton, the renowned “father of social entrepreneurship,” believes that, in an era of rapid technological change, empathy is the key business survival skill because it underpins successful teamwork and leadership. His influential Ashoka foundation has launched a Start Empathy initiative which, in 2013, will whisper its ideas into the ears of business leaders and politicians worldwide.
Canada’s Roots of Empathy programme has successfully taught empathy to over half a million children (resulting in less playground bullying, and higher exam grades). The scheme is now spreading to the US, the UK and beyond.
The big prize, however, is figuring out how social-networking technology can harness empathy to create mass political action. Can Twitter convince us to care deeply about the suffering of distant strangers, whether they are drought-struck farmers in Africa, or future generations who will bear the brunt of our carbon-junkie lifestyles? This will only happen if social networks learn to spread not just information, but empathic connection.