Can We Revive Empathy in Our Selfish World?

Jamil Zaki in Nautilus:

You wake up on a bus, surrounded by all your remaining ossessions. A few fellow passengers slump on pale blue seats around you, their heads resting against the windows. You turn and see a father holding his son. Almost everyone is asleep. But one man, with a salt-and-pepper beard and khaki vest, stands near the back of the bus, staring at you. You feel uneasy and glance at the driver, wondering if he would help you if you needed it. When you turn back around, the bearded man has moved toward you and is now just a few feet away. You jolt, fearing for your safety, but then remind yourself there’s nothing to worry about. You take off the Oculus helmet and find yourself back in the real world, in Jeremy Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University.

For more and more people in Silicon Valley, a long and dangerous bus ride isn’t a simulation; it’s reality. Santa Clara County—home to Facebook and Google—contains the nation’s second highest concentration of affluence. The soaring cost of living here has displaced all but the wealthiest. In Palo Alto, the nation’s tech epicenter, the number of homeless people has increased by a staggering 26 percent in the past two years, with higher concentrations of children and families among them. They turn to shelters, campers, and, in harder times, bus line 22.

Just a mile from Stanford’s bucolic campus, the 22 departs Palo Alto for San Jose, and shuttles between the two cities all night. Silicon Valley’s homeless have taken to it for safety and shelter so often and in such numbers that it’s been dubbed Hotel 22. Dozens of people shuffle on past midnight, in an orderly, exhausted procession. They take the 90-minute ride from one end of its route to the other, get off, and then get right back on. Drivers on line 22 know the drill. After leaving the first station, one announces over the bus’s intercom, “No lying down, no putting your feet on the seats … Be respectful to the next people getting on because they’re going to work. Let’s have a nice safe ride; let’s do it right. Anybody wants to act up, well, you know the consequences.”

More here.