Steve Jobs, Pop!Tech 2011, and Compassion

Steve Jobs was often criticized for his apparent lack of compassion. He was not known for making generous philanthropic donations to worthy causes. The 2006 article in Wired magazine expressed this feeling in the commentary titled "Jobs vs. Gates: Who's the Star?". Eyebrows were raised because for a number of years Steve Jobs had denied child support payments to his out-of-wedlock daughter. Steve Jobs was known for innovation, creativity, style, inspiration, and for revolutionizing the way the world communicates, but he was not particularly applauded for compassion and philanthropy.

I would like to propose quite the opposite. I would like to say that Steve Jobs's work is contributing tremendously, in more than one ways, to making the world a more compassionate place. I believe we can safely assume that the people in the world are becoming more peaceful and compassionate as claimed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his interview on the TODAY show on MSNBC. Steven Pinker, in his article in the Wall Street Journal, argues that the world is becoming less brutal and more empathic, as shown by the data that violence in the world has gone down. I claim that Steve Jobs' innovations are serendipitously helping the world in raising its level of compassion.

I propose that Steve's innovations are creating evolutionary and psychological conditions under which we are more likely to feel compassion towards people whom, by creating "us against them" divisions, we are otherwise hostile towards. iPhones, iPads (and other devices that sprung up as their competition) have made the use of social media -- Skype, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, video-conferencing -- available at our fingertips. In the process of doing so, they have created a digital and visual familiarity with people who otherwise would have seemed like a figment of our imagination. It has created awareness and a sense of kinship with people from the remotest parts of the world.

This perceived commonality is important for creating compassion and altruism. David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University and a Pop!Tech 2011 speaker, articulates this effectively in the book "Out of Character". We have an internal conflict between too much compassion and too little compassion. We cannot be offering too much compassion to everybody because it may pose a threat to our own survival and consume our limited resources. On the other hand, we do not want to feel too little compassion because it will compromise our long term well-being which comes from creating altruistic positive relationships. In order to resolve this conflict, we need a psychological mechanism for choosing and picking the person who deserves our compassion by satisfying one of the two evolution-based criteria: 1) who we think is related to us and will pass on our genes, 2) who we think will help us back in return, increasing our chances of survival. The psychological mechanism used as a cue for compassion is "perceived similarity", sometimes based on physical superficial similarities, sometimes based on values, or sometimes based on shared pain. Our psychological systems are very flexible in deciding this similarity, sometimes in a blink, sometimes after a long thinking process. Awareness of similarity plays a big role in how compassionate we feel towards another person.

Back to Steve again! All the popularization of visual and voice based technology so passionately promoted by Steve, is making us much more familiar with our shared commonality with many more human beings. It makes us familiar with their physical features, it makes us aware of their pain and problems, it creates many more opportunities for receiving help in return, and it makes us feel that we want to help many more people who otherwise may seem like complete strangers. In this sense, Steve is possibly contributing to making the world a more compassionate place.

Yet another significant way in which Steve Jobs has contributed to the world of philanthropy and compassion is discussed by Dan Pallotta. Dan, an expert in innovation in the non-profit sector, wrote the article "Steve Jobs, World's Greatest Philanthropist" in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network in September 2011, before Steve passed away. Dan notes how without Steve's total devotion to what he did the best, we would be still waiting for cell phones to do quick emails and web-surf, for iPads to revolutionize medical training, for charities to raise money more efficiently, for paperless communication to save forests, and for creativity in kids to be fostered. Steve's revolutionary technical innovations have contributed directly to several good causes.

This type of contribution was very apparent in my recent trip to Pop!Tech 2011 conference, titled "The World Rebalancing", in which bright people presented innovative and heartfelt ideas for addressing problems in the world. The striking feature underlying many of these new ideas was the obvious presence of newly available technological tools: the use of social media, smart phones, graphics/voice technology, and real time access to information. The following are just a couple of such examples. Robert Kirkpatrick is working for "Global Pulse", under the UN Secretary General's office, proposing to use real time data collected from monitoring social media usage to study trends in unemployment and health. Anne Githuku-Shogwe from South Africa is using games on mobile phones to attract and educate women and children to learn how to fight and report violence. David Mikkalsen Troensegaard from Denmark is running "Refugees United" helping to locate missing relatives of refugees in the Middle East and Africa by using network of mobile phones and technology based communication.

I propose to those of us who are fortunate enough to own an iPhone, or an iPad, to listen and see, and check if we feel more empathy and compassion towards people whom we otherwise would not have noticed.