Transgenerational Empathy –Adding Time, as Well as Space to the Empathy Equation

Taiwanese GrandmaMy 阿嫲阿公 (Grandmother-in-law), Taipei, Taiwan, 2011

There’s a tremendous video ad that is a must-watch for all designers and ponderers of empathy — a commercial for SoftBank, a Japanese telecommunications giant, about linking technologies for transgenerational communication between a family (with grandkids) in Osaka, and their parents in Tarama, a remote island in the Pacific in Okinawa prefecture.  The video is in Japanese, and apparently the technology shown in the video is not available commercially.  But it’s well worth the pondering for any designer about the temporal dimensions of our rapidly accelerating technological society, as well as our more traditional concepts of spatial/national separation defining what we call culture.  I’d even go so far to say that it’s a must watch.

The storyline of the video is the separation that the family feels is initially framed as spatial — Tarama is a long way, and multiple flights, from Osaka. But it also clearly paints the picture of technological/temporal separation of generations of a family. The youngers are obviously ingratiated in the modern age.  But the grandparents live in the world of legacy technology — they have a black, dial phone (picture below for those that don’t know what that means!)blackrotarygif2


as well as legacy technology, including a VHS tape player for their TV.

The company pitches solutions not yet commercially available across this transgenerational culture divide.  These include things like a Facebook post aggregator, that prints out for the grandparents an actual newspaper of all the posts; an automatic linear traverse height measurement pole with a CNC stylus to engrave the heights of the grandkids; and a QR code reader that is installed in their VHS Videocassette Recorder that immediately accesses the Cloud for the latest videos of the grandparents when they insert the cassette in the machine; and the rotary phone that when dialed, opens up a video conference on the old folks’ TV with the pertinent party.  It’s pure genius.

Of course, assistive technology for old folks has been around forever — and things like stair lifts, or smart homes, are continuing to ingratiate themselves in our daily lives.  But what’s awesome about this video is that it directly confronts the empathy/connection gap between old and young in our rapidly accelerating technological cultures.

We are used to framing cultures in terms of national identities and spatial separations.  But the reality of the globalized world is that these mental models are themselves becoming outdated.  My son is an anime’/manga buff.  Young people everywhere love Hello Kitty.  The Peanuts’ Snoopy is well-known in Taiwan, even though many have never watched A Charlie Brown Christmas One of the very real empathetic separations is temporal separation, and the idea of a modified culture under constant change is now profoundly generational.  Whereas it used to take hundreds of years for cultures to change and evolve, our new tech can create cultural gaps overnight.  Anyone remember Myspace?

For the entrepreneur, such tech opens up new market possibilities by expanding our potential markets to temporal culture separations. And for the educator interested in developing empathy across cultures, instead of flying people across the world to increase empathetic range, there are opportunities here for rational place-taking in our backyard. The obvious side-benefit of developed emotional empathy and deeper compassion are out there as well, waiting for us to act.  I also have to admit curiosity that there may be bio-social aspects of loss of ability to read faces across the different ages.  This may be a larger empathetic issue than we realize.

What has to change for this vision shift to occur is to remove the stigma from those that are, by virtue of age, falling behind the wavefront of tech. evolution.  I’m proposing a hackathon series that confronts this issue.  Any takers?


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