Fiber-optic empathy: bridging borders in the internet age

    Scholars commonly define globalization as the increasinly freer movement of people, goods and ideas across the world. As the world flattens, I believe that a very different kind of commodity is spreading across national boundaries: empathy.

    I felt it this past week, when my Facebook newsfeed was alight with commentary from both sides of the Pacific. Thanks to a 13-hour difference between the United States and my home in Singapore, I often think of my newsfeed as being made of two halves, with different people active on Facebook at any point, chattering on about their separate existences.

    By April 15 the rules of the game had changed. A few hours after the news broke in the U.S. about the Boston Marathon bombings and my friends at Northwestern students, my friends from Singapore woke up, read the news online and continued the conversation. Shock. Fear. Anger. And above all, empathy. For the next few days people in Singapore kept Boston in their thoughts, sharing the same links and sentiments as the MIT lockdown and subsequent manhunt unfolded.

    Call me naïve, but I believe that nationality is presenting less of a barrier to empathizing with someone on the other side of the globe. Whatever the color of our passports, we can all understand or at least imagine the horror of sending a loved one off at the starting line to what could potentially be his death. The threat of terrorism is now global — London taught us that in 2005. Singapore is susceptible to terrorism as well—in 2001 we uncovered a bomb plot targeting a number of embassies. We’re slowly learning to realize that the fears we harbour can be shared by someone else on another part of the world, and we’re starting to see such events as not just a foreign news clip but as something that is a potential assault on everyone’s lives.

    Globalization has deposited people all over the world, and that’s probably why we can no longer cast off such events as something happening exclusively on foreign shores. According to Singapore Prime Minister Hsien-Loong Lee, 18 Singaporeans participated in the Boston Marathon. Many more attend schools like Harvard, MIT and Tufts in the higher education hotspot that surrounds Boston. When I woke up to the news that a bomb had supposedly been found in Duke University, I flipped out for a few seconds and contacted my friend of four years to make sure she was OK.

    Of course, my American friends were also asking after their friends. That’s the twisted beauty of a globalized world—even as it exposes the potential of experiencing tragedy to people of a different continent, it also brings home the realization that we’re all united by more similar experiences now.

    There’s something more to these feelings of concern than mere self-interest. After establishing that friends were safe, neither I nor my friends from Singapore cast the Boston Marathon aside as something that simply affected some Americans. My evidence? Facebook, where many of my friends expressed their sympathy and got involved in discussion about the Boston Marathon, just as my friends on the other side of the Pacific did.

    I recognize that people may post a status update about an international news event in part to convey something about their supposed “worldliness” to their network of virtual friends. I also feel that simply posting statuses can be superficial at times — as we simply hit “update” and move on with our lives. However, social networking was the fastest, most efficient way for people in faraway Singapore to express their feelings regarding the bombings. Online chatter among my friends was thoughtful and considered, going beyond merely expressing sympathy to discuss issues like whether it’s fair to compare the media’s reaction toward Boston with their coverage of the atrocities in the Middle East and condemning the Westboro Baptist Church for wanting to picket the Boston funerals. And they continued the discussion on comment threads.

    Sure, it’s all talk. People from other parts of the world didn’t donate blood to the victims, and they didn’t have family affected by the bombings. However, I truly feel the empathy they expressed was genuine, and important going forward for us as we try to figure out how to make the world a safer place. By putting the weight of their sympathetic words behind those in the United States – people who they don’t necessarily know — people all around the world on their mobile phones and news apps will hopefully contribute to a rising tide of consciousness about the need to ensure a safer world, whether we’re in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.


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