MATTSPLAINED [] MSP76 [] Disruption and the Death of Empathy

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

MATTSPLAINED [] MSP76 [] Disruption and the Death of Empathy

In part 3 of our Disrupted World series, MSP takes a look at the social costs of digital disruption and asks if we are somehow becoming less human in the process.

Of course, that takes us to CoffeGate, Game of Thrones and Gladiator, and Matt considers launching the world’s first Sesame Street fake movie review podcast.


Produced by Jeff Sandhu for BFM89.9


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Episode Transcript


These shows are dictated to and transcribed by machines, and hurriedly edited by a human. Apologies for the typos and grammar flaws.


This week on MSP we are continuing with our Disrupted World series. Last week we had a look at some of the ways that consumers and the tech companies can work together to change business models and give us more control over the data we generate.


This week we’re staying with us, people, consumers, listeners - whatever you want to call us - to ask: what’s happened to our humanity? I assume this is a response to CoffeGate?

·      Hey Jeff.

·      Isn’t it strange how these serendipitous things pop up.

·      We’re in the middle of a disrupted world series. We were working on human empathy – or the lack of it – for today’s show.

·      And what do we get? A barrel roll of haters piling on because a modern day coffee cup was stuck in the background of a shot of this week’s Game of Thrones.

·      For those of you who have better things to do with your day, in a shot of the post battle feast in the episode, a takeaway coffee cup was left on a table in front of Daenerys, the Dragon Queen.

·      Isn’t it remarkable how far we’ve come, that that statement doesn’t sound as ridiculous as it obviously is.

·      Best thing is, you can’t even see it anymore. Because HBO have CGI’d it out following the backlash. 


I think some people were commenting that last week’s episode, the Battle, was too dark, and this week, suddenly you can see everything and the crew has left a modern cup in shot. So what was hiding in the dark of last week’s episode?

·      It’s a fair point. And I imagine that in the future someone with a BluRay player and a lot of time will take a forensic look at every scene in that episode.

·      Hopefully, my Internet will be down on that particular day.

·      Look for the most part it’s funny. It’s always funny when this kind of thing gets left in shot.


Did you like the Memes?

·      And there are some really good ones. I particularly like the one that makes it look as though it was a deliberate act by Dani rival Sansa Stark to sabotage her.

·      I thought that was a nice way of mixing onscreen and offscreen.

·     To Jeff: Is there one you liked [We can skip this is easier]?


Jeff Replies

·      But there’s also an undercurrent of anger there as well. 

·      That somehow the production team is lazy and sloppy. 

·      I saw one post on Twitter along the lines of ‘how dare you charge me so much to watch HBO and then allow mistakes like these to occur.


People are taking it too seriously?

·      Is there anything that doesn’t get taken too seriously on Twitter?

·      People complaining that their right to say hateful things and insult people has been impinged upon.

·      You only have to spend a few seconds on YT to find the streams and streams of videos that unearth these kinds of bloopers and continuity mistakes in big movies and TV shows.

·      Gladiators is a classic example.


I think that movie is legendary for its continuity errors…

·      Russell Crowe is holding his sword in different hands as the camera moves from 

·      In his death scene he pancakes onto bare earth but is suddenly resting his head on a rock in the close up shot.

·      But do those things ruin your enjoyment of the film?


There’s also a scene where one of the chariots overturns and you see there’s some kind of petrol tank or gas canister underneath.

·      This stuff happens. When you consider that blockbuster movies take a couple of years to make and GOT is doing multiple episodes at a similar scale, it’s a wonder that more things don’t get missed.

·      But the point is, how can you let something so inconsequential get you angry.

·      Your faith in the TV show has been rocked by a single continuity error. To the point where you have to insult the cast and crew.


Didn’t Jon Snow attack the haters online a few weeks ago?

·      Even before the new season began there was a hardcore of fans complaining that this season would be a let-down. 

·      So Jon Snow – who is also occasionally though less well known as Kit Harington – lambasted them.

·      Because if those are your fans: come on, really?


This is the second week in a row you’ve tried to turn this into a screen review show. Are you trying one of those pivots you claim to hate?

·      These days you’ve got to keep yourself fresh, reinvent yourself every now and again.

·      That’s why we’re rebranding MSP – the movie show podcast

· to 0m24s)

·      There are so many movie shows, it’s hard to stand out

·      But I think I’ve found a niche here for fake Sesame Street movie reviews.

·      By definition no one’s already doing because the movies don’t exist.


It’s always some kind of get rich quick scam with you, isn’t it?

·      And yet I don’t seem to have many online haters…


That may be about to change…

·      I’m sure it will one day. I’ve been soaring too close to the sun recently. 

·      But let’s bring it back to people with actual hate on their minds. 

·      There have been too many of these incidents of late.

·      Do you remember a case that resurfaced earlier this year? 

·      The woman who sued her nephew for running up for a hug and breaking her wrist?


Vaguely. I remember that she was branded the Auntie Christ and received death threats… 

·      Yes. Because we’re so quick to rush to condemn people. 

·      I know that there have been various studies recently that say that people are angrier now than they have been for years.

·      But you wonder what the chicken and egg is. 

·      Are people using social media to vent their anger.

·      Are angry people naturally drawn to social media.

·      Or is there more of a causal effect?

·      Is it the fact that we’re connected but shielded by that layer of distance the Internet gives us?


You mean the people who hide behind pseudonyms?

·      Sure. Some people do. And that’s actually a separate discussion.

·      There are a lot of arguments both for and against championing anonymity on the Net – which we have covered on the show before, I think. 

·      But a lot of people are quite prepared to say horrific things using their true name.

·      We’ve mentioned the show before, but comedian Dylan Marron’s podcast Conversations With People Who Hate Me is an illuminating delve into this phenomenon because it actually allows people to talk to their haters and find out directly what their motivation is.

·      And almost invariably, even if they never reconcile their views, they are able to have a civil conversation – and when things get heated, they have Marron, a figure attracting more than his fair share of online vitriol as the peacemaker.


So anonymity isn’t really the barrier?

·      No, the barrier seems to be the medium itself. 

·      It’s like we can suddenly indulge that inner monologue, the one we would never use if the person was sitting in front of us.

·      And online, these shame fests turn into these immense pile-ons with the haters egging each other on.

·      I think there was that case of the food fad Insta influencer who it turned out wasn’t vegan after all.


The clean eating star whose diet made her ill?

·      Yeah, because the eating thing was her brand. And she did follow some fairly silly ideas.

·      18 month air juice cleanses or whatever nonsense was in vogue that week.

·      Like a lot of people whose diets are extreme rather than balanced, she suffered as a result and had to supplement it with fish, I think.

·      She was effectively trapped inside her own brand. Because being a clean eating Influencer was how she made a living.

·      When she came clean and admitted it You’d think she’d offered to let North Korea conduct nuclear tests in her basement for all the noise it made.


Maybe people really are invested in these things – whether it’s Influencers or Tv shows – and they genuinely feel those emotions.

·      Do you come out and tell me every time you get irritated with me?

·      No. We don’t have to say every single thing that pops into their mind. 

·      If I did, this would be a very different show, and it would contain a lot more graphic descriptions of mutilation.

·      In fact, I’d probably shock the scriptwriters of the Saw franchise. 

·      But my filters are at least partly operational – at most I share the worst parts of myself with King Jaff R and that’s only because he thinks I’m vanilla.

·      He dismembers stuff for the fun of it.


After all this, I have absolutely no idea what today’s show is all about. 

·      It’s about empathy. I’ve just spent the last 10 minutes setting you up to empathise with the listeners and ask, what are we all doing here.


We’re going to take a break while I wipe the smirk off Mr Clever’s face. When we come back, we’ll see how much empathy Matt has left.




Welcome back to Mattsplained, If the hint of irritation in my voice is hiding it, you may not guess that today’s show is about empathy and some of the ways that technology seems to be disrupting it. 


How much empathy are you feeling now?

·      Tons. I’m even feeling positive about slugs and cockroaches right now.

·      It’ll take a lot more than that to break me. 


If listeners want to find out what happened to Matt during the break, they’ll have to wait for the R-rated version of this show to come out. 

·      Listeners can use the hashtag #SaveMatt to pledge their support.

·      Or #BooJeff if they want to pile on the hate.

·      That’s the thing about empathy – which we’ll get to in a bit – it’s supposed to be universal but empathy seems to be becoming as selective and tribal as our online behaviour.

·      We feel empathy for us and never for them. Which I’m not sure is empathy at all. 

·      Before we get there. I want to talk about silicon valley.


There’s a novel idea!

·      You see, Jeff is demonstrating all the things that modern empathy isn’t.

·      Not just Silicon Valley but the bits of real estate around it.

·      Now, we know on the one hand that the colossal expansion of the tech industry in California, especially along that San Francisco has had a great revitalising effect on communities in those areas. 

·      An influx of money and people and customers for local businesses.

·      Buyers for houses.


True, but that gentrification comes with its own costs…

·      Absolutely. We see rents increasing in those areas, which pushes people at lower income levels out of neighbourhoods they’ve lived in all their lives.

·      Rising commercial rents can displace established local businesses, so you see bodegas replaced with the ever-maligned avocado toast emporia.

·      And you can also sometimes see a rise in social problems, especially homelessness.

·      We’ve seen the rise of the contract worker in SV. 

·      The people who work on those sleek campuses, manning its canteens, mopping its floors.

·      But most of those people are not employees and don’t enjoy any of the perks that staff receive.

·      We’ve heard harrowing tales of those same workers living in garages or even in their cars and vans.

·      The working homeless. With full time jobs at some of the world’s richest companies but unable to afford even the basic right of a decent place to live.


Surely those people deserve more than our empathy?

·      Yes, but that isn’t my point. What I want to bring up is the response of people like the tech bro, entrepreneur Justin Keller who wrote an open letter to SF’s mayor and police chief about the homeless back in 2016.

·      Now, I’m sure he received plenty of unwarranted abuse and threats on social media that can’t be justified.

·      Incredibly he actually wrote, without any sense of irony, that wealthy working people like him did not want to see the pain, struggle and despair of homeless people.

·      But he didn’t seem to see himself as either a part of the problem or the solution.


You see that as an example of the empathy gap?

·      There’s a recognition that homeless people struggle and suffer, but rather than looking for solutions, it’s better to have them removed from sight.

·      Now, perhaps I’m mis-quoting Keller’s intent. If I am, I apologize. I can empathize with him if he was wrongly accused.

·      But really it’s that viewpoint I want to highlight, rather than him specifically.


Do you think Justin Keller may have invented a bus?

·      He seems tone deaf enough. Although, one of his ‘man of the people’ responses was that he rides a bus to work. 

·      It’s an old story and the main reason I’m bringing it up is not to shame Keller but because it connects to more recent events.

·      This year another wealthy group of San Francisco residents has spent more than USD100k on legal fees to object to a homeless shelter being built in their neighbourhood.

·      Thankfully, they haven’t succeeded. But there’s a certain immorality in those actions, as well as a lack of empathy.

·      In a town that’s now so expensive that people with full-time jobs can’t afford a place to live, its richest inhabitants are spending their own wealth preventing them from gaining even the most basic shelter.


And your point is what?

·      To remember the fundamental irony.

·      They’re working in one of the most fragile and uncertain industries in the world.

·      Most of them are destined to repeatedly work for companies that fail.

·      They cram themselves into dorm rooms and boarding houses, work for low wages and hope that one day their stock options will make them rich.

·      Most of those workers are just one more failed startup away from homelessness. 

·      They are probably destined to be the contract support workers they currently scorn.

·      And maybe that’s why they look at people without feeling or empathy.

·      That gnawing sense of fear that those people are their future. 


As usual, fun stuff on a Friday here on MSP. 

·      Exactly, which brings me back to another podcast I heard recently, an episode of the Invisibilia cast called The End of Empathy.

·      What was interesting was that it took a couple of different generational takes. 

·      For those of you that don’t know the show, it uses stories about people – their stories – to illuminate the kind of hidden forces that shape our actions and our beliefs.

·      I’m not talking mystical – it’s a show firmly rooted in science – and one of the things it does it look at how emotions can shape our outlook, our personality and our experience.


And this was a show about Empathy?

·      It ended up being quite meta. 

·      I hate that word. It ended up with the show, and the people who make it being the focus rather the story.

·      So it became about how two different producers, both female and with different approaches to empathy, produced the same story in very different ways.

·      In that way it became more of a commentary on empathy in the digital age, asking who is deserving of our concern.

·     In one version of the story, a lovelorn teen flies across the country to convince his love to give him one more chance.

·     In another version, that teen is a potential predator with a lousy attitude towards women, who turns up unannounced and unwanted, on the college doorstep of the young woman he had been dating.

·     Both versions are factually the same, but, coloured by empathy, the two stories end up as opposites.


How does it relate to our digital world?

·     Because that once teen, a guy called Jack, is a former incel – the movement of guys who consider themselves to be involuntary celibate and basically hate all women.

·     That’s why I wonder if it’s partly generational.

·     Hannah Rosin, one of Invisibilia’s anchor presenters, tries to find common ground with Jack, to forge a bridge and look for those shared human values. 

·     But the second producer, commissioned to produce her take on the story as a kind of extended job application took a much more polarized position.

·     For her there seemed to be a battle line between herself and Jack.

·     She was on one side of the incel debate, he was on the other, and it was the women he degraded and potentially victimized who were the recipients of her empathy. Not Jack. 


And now you’re deciding who’s right and who’s wrong?

·     Not at all. Go listen to the show and make your own mind up. I’ll put the links in the show notes on the Kulturpop website and the mattsplained FB page. 

·     What was interesting was that it prompted Hannah Rosin to go back and re-evaluate the story again, wondering if there was something that she had missed. 

·     And she had. As she admits, in her rush to look for those commonalities, she missed the fact that Jack had been quite calculating, telling her what she wanted to hear in a sense.

·     And acting in his own pragmatic rather than empathetic interests.

·     He turned away from the incel movement not so much because he had a moment of clarity and changed his views towards women but because he realised that being a spokesperson for those forums and spending his time on them would lead to his life remaining the same, rather than improving. 


So the only person with any empathy in the story is Invisibilia’s Hannah Rosin?

·     That’s why it’s interesting. The second producer and Jack are not devoid of empathy.

·     It’s just that they only have it for their own side.

·     They feel bad for their people – but at risk of over-playing the GOT references in this show – after the big battle they would be out tending to their own injured and putting wounded opponents to the sword.


But why is this a digital story?

·     Because we’re living in this crazy, hyper-connected, stressful world.

·     And our traditional social structures have been disrupted.

·     In fact, that digital disruption is feeding this polarization we’re seeing right now.

·     That whether it’s #MAGA or #metoo – the digital world is making it too easy for us to lock ourselves into tribes and hide behind anger and polemic.

·     Because unless we have some empathy, we can’t talk. We can’t overcome those differences. 

·     We lose sight of the simple fact that the things that set us apart are much smaller than the ones that bind us together.

·      I share 99% of my DNA with a chimp but I have far more in common with Donald Trump that I can ever have with Cheetah. 


Do you think it’s an irreversible shift?

·     Being more closely related to Trump? Unfortunately, I think that’s irreversible unless I can figure out some kind of Brundlefly machine. 

·     No. But it doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the road before we remember that.

·     I’m going to commit the cardinal sin of podcasts and mention the Nazis now:

·     As one of the guests on that Invisibilia, Fritz Breithaupt, a professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Indiana points out, if Germany had had a little more empathy in the 1930s maybe the Holocaust and a lot of other horrors could have been avoided.

·      I know that  The chances of most people thinking about that the next time they hear that Milo has changed its recipe are fairly slim.

·     Whatever I say, they’ll go ahead and rage incandescently anyway. 

·      But to my mind, those lessons from history are what we should be getting fired up about, rather than Daenerys and her disappearing coffee cup.