The Empathy Of Communication

In The Pathology of Communicative Capitalism, David W. Hill alerts us to the power of empathy, a skill under siege in the digital age:

Empathy is a craft of understanding and responding to other people. It requires attentive communication, listening to others, and responding to the other person such that communication progresses whilst keeping the differences between interlocutors intact, so constituting a meaningful encounter since the other person is met on his or her own terms. Is there any time left for this kind of empathetic communication? Is there any space available? (50)

I asked similar questions in my book, The Intimacy of Communication, earlier this year, wondering aloud if there’s “space for intimacy in a hyper-connected world.” It’s nice to see I’m not the only writer concerned about smartphone addiction in what’s known today as the attention economy.

Empathy is not extinct, of course, but it’s definitely not trending on Twitter. It’s hard to connect with humans across the table from us when our heads are buried in our smartphones. I can’t recognize your uniqueness or meet you on your own terms on a first date, for instance, when I’m lost in thoughtlessness on Facebook.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, I admit I’m worried about kids these days, the cohort known as Generation Z. Gen Z follows Gen Y, also called millennials, which follows Gen X. Anyone born after 2001, the theory goes, is part of Generation Z. Given we’ve reached the end of the alphabet, I hope we haven’t reached the end of the evolutionary line.

The more I see kids attached to electronic devices, the more I sense we’ve been invaded by Generation Zombie. Rather than pick their parents’ brains for knowledge or existential templates for approaching the world, Gen Z wants to eat them. They know everything, in screenshot form. They’re born digital consumers browsing through history, with no concern for the past. “No ideas,” to invoke the spirit of poet William Carlos Williams, “but in images of images of things.”

You can’t empathize with an avatar when you’re trying to kill it, even if the human behind it is your best friend in real life. Pretty soon the character of empathy will be harder to find than the rarest Pokémon.


It’s Only Rock And Roll

Usually, in advertising, the music industry, and television, people search for “the latest thing.” One of most powerful forces in American advertising today, however, originated in the 1960s and 70s: classic rock. In chapter three of Post-Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford University Press, 2012), professor Jeffery T. Nealon tackles the persistence of classic rock in today’s marketplace.

Nealon cites baby boomers, who operate today on both the production and consumption sides of advertising, as the main reason we hear the music of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath (to name a few) in car commercials. As Nealon, on page 55, puts it:

Classic rock’s ubiquity is a sign of white suburban baby boomers stubbornly hanging on to the authenticity of their youth, in a series of spaces—the home-repair store, the orthodontist’s office, Cleveland’s classic rock station—that could hardly get any less authentic.

Rock music has long maintained an ethos of rebellion, of not following the crowd, of being yourself. What’s changed in the last twenty years is that companies now market their products to us in a buy-our-crap-not-theirs-and-be-yourself manner. Capitalism now has a use for the rebellion championed by classic rock over forty years ago. Today being yourself means buying Apple products, Coca-Cola drinks, Ford trucks, and Panasonic TVs. Spending equals rebelling and spending is the best way to define your authenticity.

But in keeping classic rock alive, baby boomers, according to Nealon, have had help from another generation: millennials.

Kids today devour music in a Top-40 fashion. Classic rock is just another genre among pop, electronica, and hip-hop. As with most music, though, today’s youth simply consume classic rock without considering its content. The race, class, and gender issues frequently invoked in the songs of the 60s and 70s elude the average middle-school student today. Anything with a good beat flies, and iPods hold thousands of songs, all of which may be played randomly, outside the context of the original albums to which they belong.

Together, the boomers and millennials have kept a seemingly ancient era of music vibrant, even while styles both older and newer than classic rock fell out of favor years ago. Nealon’s analysis finds changes in capitalism as the driving force at work here. As long as we can’t get no satisfaction, capitalism will continue urging us to try—and buy, buy, buy.