From Our Bookshelf: Taking Compassion Offline

By Whitney Patterson | March 24, 2011 | 1 comment

A round-up of recent books on the effects new technologies have on our emotional lives.

New technologies have made it easier than ever to connect with others, yet these same technologies surround us with digital distractions and demands, often isolating us from those around us.

This paradox is explored in two new books that examine the peril and the promise of virtual reality: Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, by Elias Aboujaoude, and Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle.

In Virtually You, Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, describes the ways we reinvent ourselves online. The Internet is a playground where we create who we want to be. We can post the most flattering Photoshopped profile pictures and edit profiles to only highlight or exaggerate our best qualities.

The problem with what Aboujoude refers to as our “e-personality” is its intense focus on ourselves. Our virtual reality becomes a platform to advertise our e-selves and provides ample opportunity for ego boosts.

Aboujaoude warns that the increasingly self-customizing world of virtual reality dangerously diminishes the emphasis on the other. In a “me, me, me” world, explains Aboujaoude, it’s easier for us to fall prey to narcissism and delusions of grandeur, leaving less room for empathy and compassion. In an environment where complex and sometimes difficult emotions are simplified into emoticons, we are at greater risk for abandoning reality, opting to acquire more Facebook friends rather than make meaningful connections in our real lives.

Turkle, a sociologist at MIT who’s also a licensed clinical psychologist and the founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, also worries that we are becoming an emotionally handicapped society that relies too much on technology for real-life emotional fulfillment. In Alone Together, she draws on her research and anecdotes to illustrate how the lines between reality and virtual reality are becoming increasingly blurred.

For instance, she discusses interviews she conducted with children who were given a robotic pet. She observed that these children “experience[d] [the robot] as a biological pet” with real emotions, showing a lack of distinction between the virtual and real worlds.

Similarly, Turkle fears that the intrusive and pervasive role of technology in our lives is changing our definitions of community and intimacy, making us confuse solitude with connectedness. Like Aboujaoude, she argues that technology displaces our real and complicated emotions, diluting our emotional lives and compromising our ability to engage in life fully.

Neither Turkle nor Aboujaode are entirely suspicious of new technologies. Both authors recognize that these technologies are not going away; they just want to make sure we approach them with our eyes wide open. They highlight the dangers of technology in order to help us avoid these potential pitfalls.

They also believe that virtual reality presents opportunities for good. Social networks enable people to more easily organize against injustice; the Internet brings people together from different walks of life.

But creating a better online world starts with remembering our offline human selves—selves that are capable of compassion and empathy, enabling us to recognize ourselves in each other.

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure

About The Author

Whitney Patterson is a Greater Good editorial assistant.


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:


People change their environment and their environment returns the favor. Yes, it is a peculiar irony that connecting the human race in cyber space puts many folks further away from themselves.

I just created an online persona in January. I sit here in a small Thai village and practice reading and writing in my native tongue.

Since the addition of WiFi to my humble home, I have reunited with friends and family way over there. Yeh! I am old dog though. Maybe I will live long enough to see the shift with those who grow up in this brave new world.

Actually, there are strong indication a of major sociologic shift in this country. My wife is afraid of electricity and her daughter has a laptop.

Sammi Law | 1:39 am, March 27, 2011 | Link

blog comments powered by Disqus



Greater Good Events

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017
Clark Kerr Campus, UC-Berkeley
Sunday, June 25 - Friday, June 30, 2017 OR Sunday, July 16 - Friday, July 21, 2017

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017

The GGSC’s six-day Summer Institute equips education professionals with prosocial learning strategies, tools and processes that benefit both students and teachers.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

Roots of Empathy By Mary Gordon Mary Gordon explains how best to nurture empathy and social emotional literacy in all children—and thereby reduce aggression, antisocial behavior, and bullying.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement