The Great Empathy Engine

Elisa had some things to say about cheese while Radim had some things to say about watches, and together they’ve put me in mind of a story about a trip I took to France.


It quickly became apparent that it is not so easy to talk about cheese making if you are using vastly different frames of reference. While our guest was talking about their cheese making process, and how the cheese was an integral part of their childhood, our farmers applied totally different vocabulary to talk about almost the same things.


I’ve always been curious about the intricate little machines known as watches. It began with the cool Casio digital watches of the ’80s, symbols of another world.

Thousands of years ago in the early 1980s, the theater company where my father was Deputy Producing Director went on a cultural exchange trip to France—first a week or two in Lyon and then three days in Paris. I’d previously gotten to go on a similar trip to Toronto, and these remain the only two times I’ve had opportunities to visit abroad.

(Two sidebars, if I can indulge. In Toronto I had the terrifying experience of my father pulling me toward the edge of the CN Tower observation deck contrary to my immediate vertigo, because I was blocking people in the doorway. In Paris I had my first-ever experience of being so ill that I had things coming out of both ends, sometimes simultaneously, and such was my only use of the conveniently-located bidet.)

One day while wandering the Lyon street of our hotel, a kid about my age approached and started gesturing between himself and me. What he was pointing to, it turned out, was the fact that we both were wearing digital watches.

Parenthetically, if anyone knew Lyon in 1980 or 1981, this street, a couple or a few blocks up, also had a toy store with an amazing Lego window display, and maybe you can tell me what street this was.

Neither he nor I spoke the other’s language, and the “conversation”, such as it was, hilariously consisted almost entirely of each playing for the other the songs our watches used as alarms. Mine? “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik”. His? “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

I can’t imagine what else we managed to say to one another beyond establishing that he was French and I was American. Days later, though, I spotted him at a neighborhood restaurant clearly helping his parents who obviously owned the place. The giant pot of beef bourguignon was very good.

Let’s get the credit where credit is due part out of the way before I go any further. I’ve front-loaded this post with a title lifted from the conclusion to Kevin Lawver’s wrap-up post for National Blog Post Month, because why bother burying the lede.

Because that’s what blogging should be – the great empathy engine of the web. It’s our thoughts, our selves, out there for anyone to stumble across and get a glimpse of our lived experience.

I began, then, with Elisa and Radim and that French kid for reasons I hope are obvious. Through Elisa and Radim’s blogs I got to spend time in their heads and get a glimpse of cheesemaking and watch enthusiasm, while through that French kid I falteringly and somewhat mysteriously got to bridge a gulf of language and geography. Not to mention that Elisa’s post literally is about the fact that even commonalities can come with different ways of expressing them that need to be navigated.

In turn, through reading this post, you’ve gotten a small glimpse into a formative moment in my learning how to learn about other people, even if ever so briefly and ephemerally, in addition to at least one other anecdote you wish you’d never encountered.

Once again, then, let’s talk about blogs.

Last last month, Annie wondered for whom you blog, yourself or other people. Through recent experience she discovered an answer.

Blogging is for other people just as much as for yourself! Perhaps I missed that part. I got into this because of my burnout and I was using it as a means of therapy and I must have missed the point where it became just as useful and helpful to other people as it is to me. I should be grateful, I should mark it. This is important. Blogging is important.

Let’s add just a quick shot of Ruben, who isn’t responding to Annie but this is important.

Fear of a schedule is one of the top reasons smart people I know say they “can’t write”. But you own your space. You can post whatever, whenever. You don’t owe anyone an explanation, unless you want to provide one.

There’s an argument to be made, I’d think, that posting “whatever, whenever”—posting on one’s own terms, in other words—actually is part of how one’s blogging becomes important to others. People aren’t filling their feed readers with content marketers and brands. They’re filling them with real humans.

Alan offered up a quote from Essayism by Brian Dillon, in a post titled to set up a comparison between essays and the personal blog.

Here’s part of the quoted Dillon:

And for what it’s worth my attachment to it seems of the same conflicted order: I want essays to have some integrity (formally, not morally, speaking), their strands of thought and style and feeling so tightly woven they present a smooth and gleaming surface. And I want all this to unravel in the same moment, in the same work; I want the raggedness, the patchwork, a labyrinth’s-worth of stray threads.

What this suggests to me is that the essay—and per Alan’s “exactly”, so, too, the blog—should present and reflect as the artifacts they are, of someone’s lived experience. Smooth, gleaming, ragged, and patchwork, we are, so how can our blogs be anything else?

Or, at least, this is what they ought to be.

Tracy took a deep dive into the whyfores of maintaining a public blogroll as she updated and expanded hers “to include everyone in my RSS feed reader”.

I like hearing about the trials and triumphs of other normal people’s lives, seeing what goals they pursue and what they care about enough to write about. I gather book recommendations from others’ reviews, sample others’ taste in music, and delight in the daily wonders of others’ worlds: the cat luxuriating in a strip of sunshine, the stream in the dappled light of an open forest, the neat-looking conjunction of lines on the wall they passed on their morning walk. While social media emphasizes the show-off stuff — the vacation in Puerto Vallarta, the full kitchen remodel, the night out on the town — on blogs it still seems that people are sharing more than signalling. These small pleasures seem to be offered in a spirit of generosity — this is too beautiful not to share.

This is blogging as both a writing and reader endeavor in a way expressly meant to exercise it as Kevin’s empathy engine. This is the deliberate seeking out of the lived experiences of others in order to enlarge rather than diminish oneself.

(That post is about the diagnostic language gap, but it’s the only place I managed to blog about this idea of seeking not happiness but things that enlarge you rather than diminish you. I think that this is at the heart of the empathy engine.)

I’m not entirely sure how I got there because it doesn’t appear to have been through Tracy’s post, but somehow I ended up on a post earlier this year by Neville Hobson exploring the rise and demise of the blogroll.

In short, the rise of social networking platforms and changes in people’s online behaviours have contributed to the decline of civil discourse. Blogrolls, with their curated links implying recommendations, encouraged reflection and respectful dialogue, as bloggers took the time to read, comment, and engage with one another’s work.

As I mentioned last month there’s a cognitive load to managing a blog roll that’s become beyond me, but the idea of blogrolls is too important to abandon in this current blogging renaissance. My solution: I list the blog posts of other people that I’ve actually read, whether I follow the blogger or not.

On that idea of there being something of a blogging renaissance in action, Venkatesh Rao seems circumspect if not outright skeptical. His focus mainly seems to be on the question of maintaining tech stacks in perpetuity, but not entirely.

The phrase future of the blogosphere cannot point to blogospherism or anything in the contemporary kinship group of commonsism. Any attempt to revitalize the blogosphere, or spark a renaissance, that starts with the values that emerged on the underlying aging technology stack, is doomed. Values and manifestos come last, not first. If you try to start with values, you’ll be done before you can start at all.

I can’t speak to the relationship between emerging values and technology stacks, but the values I see pretty clearly percolating in the modern blogosphere both tend and trend highly toward Kevin’s empathy engine.

It’s why I seem to keep adding Bear Blog sites to my feed reader: so many people being real humans in public together. The empathy engine seems to me fairly agnostic on the matter of technology stacks. Whether or not this or that service, say, directly interoperates with any other, or uses these or those tools under the hood, there’s nothing stopping bloggers themselves from building out the empathy engine solely and purely on the basis of their words and their lists of other bloggers alone. That’s an exercise in values.

Let me say it more plainly: the empathy engine is technology agnostic because the empathy engine runs on people.

Just in the past few days of the start of December, I’ve learned about Meadow’s writing goals, Dan’s feelings about Shane MacGowan, Brandon’s thoughts on growing older, Moqueca’s failed coffee date, Pablo’s musical tastes, Robin’s views on figuring things out, Ben’s take on doing it all, Winnie’s trip to Japan, Pete’s caution on politics, Nick’s thoughts on copyright, Sara’s guidelines for a “blog carnival”, An Open Letter’s pet health troubles, mgx’s enjoyment of aisle seats, Pratik’s dislike of Henry Kissinger, Amit’s struggles with writing, Rachel’s midlife crisis, Tina’s conflict over love, aco’s feelings about going out, and Sim’s look at hating your life. That’s not even a complete list.

Just a few final words to get in here, I think.

In my post about the diagnostic language gap, I made metaphorical use of Deb Chachra’s How Infrastructure Works, and I’m going to do so again here, although, really, in this case it’s not so much metaphorical.

Sociality—to care for, learn from, create alongside, and share our days with each other—is just as much a human need as food and water. We consider mobility to be a human right because it’s what enables us to be together, and the explosive rise of telecommunications and the Internet over the past decades is in large part because they facilitate social relationships. Not for nothing did humans start creating new ways to interact once our basic needs were reliably met. Culture, learning, shared jokes and shared sorrow, raising our children, caring for our elderly, and together dreaming of and planning for our futures—these activities are the essence of what it means to be human, both individually and collectively.

Finally, here’s Manu, who isn’t in direct reaction here to the earlier Venkatesh Rao post that’s so concerned with technology stacks, but might as well be.

We don’t need more technology. Technology won’t fix human behaviour. We need kindness, we need compassion, we need a willingness to interact honestly with strangers online. That’s not something you can solve with a better protocol. We simply have to fight the good fight, day after day, trying our best to make the web a better place.

At its core the current wave of resurgent blogging is about seeking to enlarge ourselves and each other rather than continue to distract ourselves with endless diminishment.

All you people writing, and all you people reading, and all you people responding—be you smooth, gleaming, ragged, patchwork, or like whole-persons all of the above: you are the great empathy engine driving the modern blogosphere.

Referring posts