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Silicon Valley’s Empathy Problem

Facebook is no stranger to controversy, but last month the company found itself in a public scrap with its fiercest opponents yet. The cause? Facebook’s decision to delete the accounts of several San Francisco drag queens, enforcing a longstanding policy that users go by their real names on the site.

Here in San Francisco, the activist queens known as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence reacted with anger and disbelief. As queens like Sister Roma rightly pointed out, alternative names are a means of greater safety, especially for those in the LGBT community. After all, we live in a country where you can be fired for being gay, a nation in which queer people are regularly disowned and taunted and bullied and beaten. Sometimes it’s unsafe to share everything with everyone.

Although Facebook has since apologized to the queens, the controversial rules haven’t changed. We shouldn’t be surprised by the company’s stance. “You have one identity,” its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, declared several years ago. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Comments and policies like those betray a stunning lack of imagination. They presume that the world is a static, simple place where identities are not questioned but assured. The assumption behind Facebook’s “real name” policy is that everyone feels (or should feel) certain about who they are. Maybe that rings true for the handful of young developers running the social network in Menlo Park, Calif., but it doesn’t reflect the 21st-century world most Facebook users actually know and experience.

This solipsistic premise—that most people think and live as you do—seems to lie at the heart of Zuckerberg’s thinking about the world and his industry. Speaking to an audience of Stanford students in January, the Facebook CEO encouraged aspiring entrepreneurs to start with themselves, not others.

“You want to look at real problems that people have, and those are often the ones that you have yourself, which you have the most real empathy for,” he advised. That approach is easy and comfortable, but it is certainly not empathy: the ability to step outside yourself in order to understand the experience of another.

Empathy doesn’t seem to be a very popular tool among Silicon Valley’s leading digital dreamers. To its great credit, the tech industry promises to improve the world. Yet it’s hard not to notice its passion for issues that look like problems only to people who look like Silicon Valley itself: overwhelmingly white, male, young, educated, and affluent.

Inequality soars, and the world unravels, but from Silicon Valley we’re presented with apps and services designed to save us from those most heinous of tasks: parking, doing laundry, and (gasp) buying groceries. If solipsism is the conceptual motor of the industry, it should be no surprise that we read with some regularity about tone-deaf Google Glass wearers or start-up whiz kids, unable to imagine why their actions could possibly alarm others.

To be fair, coding workshops and computer-science classes don’t ask budding developers to imagine the lives of others and see the world for the complex, uncertain place it really is. That’s what the humanities are for.

When I teach students about the First World War or Berlin’s Golden Twenties, I’m challenging them to suspend their assumptions and step outside themselves to make sense of a foreign world. Novels make similar demands. Art historians help us see that the world can be expressed and perceived in a million different ways. In other words, the humanities encourage the use of empathy as a way of thinking and solving problems.

The liberal arts get short shrift in Silicon Valley—why fill out your college degree when you could be dropping out and diving into programming languages on a Thiel Fellowship? The humanities don’t necessarily trump coding literacy. But the insights of both will be essential if this age of mobile technology is going to live up to its promise and create a world we all want to live in.

Facebook’s thoughtless dismissal of drag queens, altercations involving Google Glass users in city bars, tensions caused by the forceful and unapologetic transformation of San Francisco—perhaps an industry with more empathy in its intellectual toolbox would have been able to smooth over or even avoid nasty disputes like those.

But Silicon Valley has more to gain than just good will: It also stands to build better products. What is empathy—imagining yourself in the shoes of another—but the ultimate design principle? The empathy deficit is all the more astonishing for being found at the heart of an industry so proud of being so imaginative.

As the drag queens gathered to protest his company’s policies, Mark Zuckerberg visited a high school in Redwood City, Calif., where he told students to study programming and learn about technology. For his sake and ours, he might have encouraged them to take the humanities as seriously.

Ian P. Beacock is a doctoral candidate in modern European history at Stanford University.

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