Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips: The Future OF Feeling

[Little A; Feb. 1]

Ever since I got an iPhone, I’ve experienced something akin to an ache in the middle of conversations: an inane compulsion to make contact with my phone, followed by shame and the fear that some part of myself has been sanded down. 

As I learned from the Durham-based journalist Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips, there’s a term for this: “phubbing,” which means to snub someone by looking at your phone instead of at them. 

In her new, debut book, The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World, Phillips explores the ways that technology has altered the ways we relate to each other. She also interviews a variety of experts—doctors, teachers, and scientists—about the technology that is evolving to bridge these gaps in empathy. 

Does this mean that we’re in the clear, then—that technology can solve the interpersonal problems it has created? Not really. Phillips, who has written for places like VICE, Quartz, and the Columbia Journalism Review, is a deft researcher and an accessible writer, but she’s not particularly optimistic about our slow slouch toward dystopia. The Future of Feeling is more about taking stock of concerns about where we are, with a sideways glance toward where we might go. 

On a recent snowy Thursday, I gave Phillips a call—hey, we planned to meet face-to-face, but Mother Nature had other plans—to chat about clicks, likes, swipes, and everything human in between. 

INDY: How did this grow from an interest to a book? 

KAITLIN UGOLIK PHILLIPS: I call myself an old millennial—I’m 32, so I grew up with a lot of social media use, Myspace and then Facebook. Around 2014, a lot of people were in groups, and we would talk about things that were really important to us, like politics and feminism. It seemed like people were trying to talk about really big, really important things, but just kind of talking at each other more than really considering what the other person was saying—and I include myself in that, too. I wanted to find some hope, and so I looked into whether anyone was studying this. And thankfully, I found that they were, and I wanted to read a book about it—but it didn’t exist. 

You also mention this idea that people are becoming less lonely but more isolated. What’s the difference?

Research has shown that we spend more time physically alone but communicate with people by our devices. The research on loneliness is really interesting but changing as we speak. They’ve shown that people tend to feel less lonely when they use social media because you’re communicating with other people, but that it’s a temporary respite. Turning it off and going back to your actual IRL life brings up issues of anxiety and depression for a lot of people because it feels like you were in this space with a whole bunch of other people—and then you’re alone. 

How does an increased need for validation tie into a decrease in empathy?

There’s a correlation, in some survey research, between people who are seeking validation all the time and people who are not great at perspective-taking, which is another way of kind of describing empathy. 

That makes sense, anecdotally.

Yeah, a lot of this is anecdotal, and one of the reasons that I wanted to write the book is that I wanted to take the importance of technology—especially social media—in our lives seriously, and also the concerns about what that might be doing to us. We don’t have concrete answers to a lot of these questions, but I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t write about it and talk about it. 

“It’s more like a faith-in-humanity kind of thing than optimism that everything’s going to be, you know, puppies and roses.”

What are some of the technologies that made you optimistic about technology’s ability to generate empathy? 

I did learn and write about some people who are using chatbot technology to make connections with people who might not otherwise feel that they can connect with people. It can help direct people to mental-health resources and things like that—kids who were afraid to call a suicide hotline or go to a person for help. I really like VR, but I also really understand a lot of the criticisms of it. I think it’s a useful tool for a lot of organizations that are trying to raise money or raise awareness about different issues, to get people to put on headsets and embody the experience of someone else.

Did you finish the project feeling hopeful? 

I don’t know. I think that I feel more hopeful that someone is trying to address these things, and [that] people are talking about it and are concerned about it. There’s potential for regular people to have agency in how we use tech. But it’s more like a faith-in-humanity kind of thing than optimism that everything’s going to be, you know, puppies and roses.

Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at sedwards@indyweek.com. 

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