Is There an App for Empathy?

We are hardwired to feel unease, and even fear, around strangers. Meanwhile, every religion on the planet (at least at their most evolved levels) teaches us to “love the stranger.” Well, it’s pretty clear religion – with its technologies, wisdom and practices – has not gotten the job done.

But what if there were new, innovative technologies that could help us nurture empathy for the stranger? There just might be, in 20 Day Stranger – an experiment from the MIT Media Lab’s Playful Systems Group, and the Dalai Lama Center for Transformative Ethics. (What a great mix – Playfulness and Ethics!)

You start to realize that the strangers around you all have complex and rich lives.

20 Day Stranger is an iPhone app developed to create an intimate and anonymous connection between you and another person. For 20 days, as you and a stranger get up, and go to work (or school or travel or wherever else the world takes you), while the app tracks your path, pulling related photos from Foursquare or Google Maps along the way.

20 Day Stranger from Playful Systems on Vimeo.

Though neither person has to actively do anything, you slowly get a serious impression of your stranger’s life. At the end of the experiment, each person has one chance to send a message to the other, either to say goodbye or to exchange contact information, if they like.

Kevin Slavin, director of MIT Media Lab’s Playful Systems explains, “We started by thinking, could we make some piece of software that allows you to be connected to strangers in a way that produced empathy instead of suspicion, contempt, or disdain? If it works, if it succeeds, you’ve started to model the life of a stranger in your head, and maybe in your heart. And if it really works, you start to realize that all the strangers around you all have complex and rich lives.”

Can this app change the way we think about other people we see throughout our day, any one of whom could be our stranger? Welcome to disruptive spiritual innovation!


For more on connecting with people, be sure to read, Take the “Talk to Strangers” Challenge.


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