Literacy in the twenty-first century

Sure, it’s a little thing, but once in a while, you want to know you’re not the only one who was wondering about something. Charles Memminger explains:

Because of the noise created by the various mechanical pain inducers, the only way to follow what’s happening on the overhead television sets is to read the closed captioning. (It’s kind of interesting that the closed captions are not only there for the hearing-impaired, but also for the fitness-impaired.)

While reading the captions, I learned that a man who fled to England after allegedly killing his wife and child in America is facing “extra decision.” Extra decision? Did they mean, like, an extra decision on whether to return to the United States? Then I realized that what the announcer had said was the guy was facing “extradition,” which made a lot more sense.

So I started paying more attention to what the closed captions read versus what was actually being said on TV, and realized that the hearing-impaired were experiencing a different TV world than the hearing.

This is apparently one of those market things. You know, the idea that the market will fix itself? Obviously, not enough televisions playing in restaurants, health clubs, pubs, airports, and so on, are showing closed captions. Because one would think that it shouldn’t take so long for someone to notice.

I was sitting around one day at the Snohomish County Courthouse, orienting myself for jury duty with a sad video explaining the history, importance, and detail of this vital service. Though the video was itself subtitled, someone left on the captioning, as well. Unfortunately, these were captions printed in an opaque box, almost directly over the subtitles. I can’t tell you, then, about the subtitles, but I can only imagine they were more comprehensible than the captions.

To the other, though, the captions are still easier to figure out than SMS shorthand. Maybe the market hasn’t fixed itself because, well, so few people actually notice; they’re too busy trying to figure out how to spell chzbgr.

(Homework: Watch one of the baseball championship series games; turn on the captioning. Don’t make a drinking game out of it, though.)

(Random thought: A friend once suggested that one job she would like to perform at least once in her life is to be the union hand whose job it is to inspect the toilet paper factory and make sure the machine was counting out exactly five hundred squares of two-ply. You know, one of those stupid things one says after a few too many cheap excuses for beers. It strikes me, in a similar—albeit sober—context, that one of the worst jobs in America must belong to some poor bastard at DHS who sits around digging through people’s text messages for hints of terrorism. I once dreamed Tetris; some unfortunate soul out there dreams netspeak.)

Empathy in the twenty-first century

Detail of Boston Globe Staff photo illustration, October 17, 2010Take a note: Empathy, apparently, is on the decline in American society.

The data are sketchy insofar as defining empathy is itself a tough question, and a new study raises in its wake some questions about its dimensions.

But the story from Keith O’Brien, for

Young Americans today live in a world of endless connections and up-to-the-minute information on one another, constantly updating friends, loved ones, and total strangers — “Quiz tomorrow…gotta study!” — about the minutiae of their young, wired lives. And there are signs that Generation Wi-Fi is also interested in connecting with people, like, face-to-face, in person. The percentage of high school seniors who volunteer has been rising for two decades.

But new research suggests that behind all this communication and connectedness, something is missing. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years.

According to the findings, today’s students are generally less likely to describe themselves as “soft-hearted” or to have “tender, concerned feelings” for others. They are more likely, meanwhile, to admit that “other people’s misfortunes” usually don’t disturb them. In other words, they might be constantly aware of their friends’ whereabouts, but all that connectedness doesn’t seem to be translating to genuine concern for the world and one another.

The first question that strikes me is one of definitions; some might resent the suggestion that they are less (or not) empathetic, and this issue could have some root in how we define empathy. Is it simply that one cares about an event, issue, or person? Or does empathy require some sort of demonstration?

And from there, of course, we stumble into the realm of empowerment. That is, sure, one might care about an issue, but what does that really matter?

    Sometimes I watch the TV news;
    I want to say, what’s the use in trying?
    ‘Cause, come on, what kind of difference can one man make?
    Yeah, but how much more can I take?

    (Styx, “Together”)

Now here’s a twist: Such questions only skim the surface. The question of empathy is one that ties to almost everything about our human social endeavors. Indeed, we are as a species stronger together than individually. We tear down mountains, bring fire from the sky, slay one another with remarkable efficiency, stride the heavens, raise oases in deserts, challenge nature itself, and, ultimately, may hold the power to permanently alter the evolution of a planet—and countless species roaming its face.

And empathy is an element very close to the heart of our social instinct. It is an evolutionary tool that has served us tremendously through aeons.

Which raises the possibility that the current state of human empathy is a mere blinking of some cosmic eye; what is a sharp decline asserted over ten years compared to the whole of our history?

It is, of course, a sticky and complicated issue. If few answers suggest themselves, it is because we have not begun to explore the true dimensions of the asserted phenomenon. The first thing, of course, should be to establish its existence. Certes, we might nod sagely and recall various episodes from our own lives, observing in others or reflecting of ourselves specific dearths of empathy. But what does it equal in the larger scale, and what are the implications of that sum?