Wednesday, July 16, 2008

If real-life people cared as much as netizens

From Washington Post:

The Impassive Bystander: Someone Is Hurt, in Need of Compassion. Is It Human Instinct to Do Nothing?

A woman fell on the floor, convulsed and died half and hour later in a hospital's waiting room while the staff walked by, watched, and did nothing. (Fellow patients didn't call for help either.)

A 78-year-old man tries to cross a street with a carton of milk. To quote the article, "He steps off the curb just as two cars that appear to be racing swerve on the wrong side of the street. The first car swerves around the man. The second car hits him and throws him into the air like a doll, then speeds away. What follows is even more chilling: People walk by. Nine vehicles pass him lying in the street. Some drivers slow down to look but drive away."

The article questions how it could have happened, and whether we are actually wired for indifference.

If no one else is moving, individuals have a tendency to mimic the unmoving crowd. Although we might think otherwise, most of us would not have behaved much differently from the people we see in these recent videos, experts say. Deep inside, we are herd animals, conformists. We care deeply what other people are doing and what they think of us. The classic story of conformist behavior can be found in the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, the 28-year-old bar manager who was slain by a man who raped and stabbed her for about half an hour as neighbors in a New York neighborhood looked on. No one opened a door for her. No one ran into the street to intervene.

We seem to be more caring on the internet

At the same time, most of us in the blogosphere have probably heard of cases of people rallying around a virtual friend who's having a real life emergency -- e.g. calling police upon suspicion that a fellow blogger is about to commit suicide -- even if they have never met that person before. It can make you wonder: can we engineer the real world to be more like the internet in that respect? Would we be more likely to help a stranger on the street if we knew he was just a few friends away from being connected to us on Facebook?

Can we engineer real life to be more like the net?

Among humans, negative example is apparently contagious. But perhaps our machines could show some positive example for us, if we programmed them to do so. Let's say, a victim's mobile device notifies his/her Facebook friends, Twitter followers, or other social networking contacts; they in turn could alert their friends on their mobile devices based on location; and so the bubble of alerts could propagates to those who happen to be relatively close to the victim at the moment. (In the 6-degrees-of-separation world this should not take long.) Then perhaps those people within the alert wave might be motivated to help, not the least because they know there is an "audit trail" making them accountable to their friends. (Of course, there are a few technical problems here, but I'm talking about the concept.)

So in a sense the users would be Big-Brother'ing each other. But at the same time social networking applications could prompt us to do the right thing by making it appear as if somebody is doing the right thing. :-)

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