Jan 08, 2015

    In an interconnected world, empathy counts

    YOU could easily write a book or, better yet, make a movie about the drama that engulfed Sony Pictures and The Interview, Sony's own movie about the fictionalised assassination of North Korea's real-life dictator. The whole saga reflects so many of the changes that are roiling and reshaping today's world before we've learnt to adjust to them.

    Think about this: In November 2013, hackers stole 40 million credit- and debit-card numbers from Target's point-of-sale systems. Beginning in late August last year, nude photos believed to have been stored by celebrities on Apple's iCloud were spilled onto the sidewalk.

    Thanksgiving brought us the Sony hack, when, as The Times reported: "Everything and anything had been taken. Contracts. Salary lists. Film budgets. Medical records. Social Security numbers. Personal e-mails. Five entire movies."

    And, on Christmas, gaming networks for both the Sony PlayStation and the Microsoft Xbox were shut down by hackers.

    But rising cybercrime is only part of the story. Every day, a public figure is apologising for something crazy or foul that he muttered, uttered, tweeted or shouted that went viral - including the rantings of an NBA owner in his girlfriend's living room.

    What's going on? We're in the midst of a Gutenberg-scale change in how information is generated, stored, shared, protected and turned into products and services.

    We are seeing individuals become super-empowered to challenge governments and corporations. And we are seeing the rise of apps that are putting strangers into intimate proximity in one another's homes (think Airbnb), into one another's cars (think Uber) and into one another's heads (think Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).

    Thanks to the integration of networks, smartphones, banks and markets, the world has never been more tightly wired. As they say: "Lost there, felt here." Whispered there, heard here. And it's now hit a tipping point.

    "The world is not just rapidly changing; it is being dramatically reshaped," Dov Seidman - author of the book How and chief executive of LRN, which advises global businesses on ethics and leadership - argued to me in a recent conversation.

    "It operates differently. It's not just interconnected; it's interdependent. More than ever before, we rise and fall together. So few can now so easily and so profoundly affect so many so far away."

    But, he added, "it's all happened faster than we've reshaped ourselves and developed the necessary norms, behaviours, laws and institutions to adapt". The implications for leading and operating are enormous.

    For starters, our privacy walls are proving no match for the new technologies. "Now, we're not only getting X-ray vision into the behaviour of others," Mr Seidman said. "We're also getting fine-grained MRIs into the inner workings of palaces, boardrooms and organisations and into the mindsets of those who lead them."

    So how does anyone adapt? Just disconnect? "Trying to disconnect to avoid exposure in a connected world is a misguided strategy," Mr Seidman argued. "If you do that, how will you create value and get anything done?"

    The right strategy is "to deepen and strengthen all these connections". But how? "If we're in an interdependent world, then the only strategy for countries, companies and individuals is to build healthy interdependencies so we rise, and not fall, together," Mr Seidman added.

    "This comes down to behaviour. It means being guided by sustainable values like humility, integrity and respect in how we work with others: values that build healthy interdependencies." It means shunning "situational 'values', just doing whatever the situation allows".

    The American-Canadian relationship is a healthy interdependency. The relationship between police forces and black youth today is an unhealthy interdependency. The relationship between Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and his police force is an unhealthy interdependency.

    But there is another critical part. It's how we learn to respond to all the secrets being revealed: the CEO's e-mail message that not only makes him look foolish, but also reveals that women are being paid less than men in the same jobs; the video of a suspect being killed by police; the elevator footage of a football player knocking out his fiancee; and private photos of movie stars. They all have different moral and societal significance. We need to deal with them differently.

    "We need to pause more to make sense of all the MRIs we're being exposed to," Mr Seidman argued. In the pause, "we reflect and imagine a better way".

    In some cases, that could mean showing empathy for the fact that humans are imperfect. In others, it could mean "taking principled stands" towards those whose behaviours "make this interdependent world unsafe, unstable or unfree".

    In short, there's never been a time when we need more people living by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Because, in today's world, more people can see into you and do unto you than ever before.

    Otherwise, we're going to end up with a "gotcha" society, lurching from outrage to outrage, where in order to survive you'll either have to disconnect or constantly censor yourself because every careless act or utterance could ruin your life. Who wants to live that way?