You wake up on a bus, surrounded by all your remaining possessions. 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.
Courtesy of the author
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.”
On Palo Alto’s El Camino Real, 2019 Tesla coupes sit in a dealership, waiting to be scooped up by new multimillionaires. Down the road, rows of RVs are parked for days on end, housing families whose lives were upended weeks or months ago. When we’re no longer shocked by juxtapositions like these, it means we have gone blind to the suffering of homeless people. Sometimes we fail to see their humanity at all. In one study, neuroscientists showed people images of individuals from many groups—businesspeople, athletes, parents—while scanning their brains with fMRI. Parts of the brain associated with empathy were activated by every group except the homeless.
Empathy evolved as one of humans’ vital survival skills. Over millennia, we changed to make connecting easier. Our testosterone levels dropped, our faces softened, and we became less aggressive. We developed larger eye whites than other primates, so we could easily track one another’s gaze, and intricate facial muscles that allowed us to better express emotion. Our brains developed to give us a more precise understanding of each other’s thoughts and feelings.
As a result, we developed vast empathic abilities. We can travel into the minds of not just friends and neighbors but also enemies, strangers, and even imaginary people in films or novels. This helped us become the kindest species on Earth. Chimpanzees, for instance, work together and console each other during painful moments, but their goodwill is limited. They rarely give each other food, and though they may be kind to their troop, they are vicious outside of it.
By contrast, humans are world-champion collaborators, helping each other far more than any other species. This became our secret weapon. As individuals, we were not much to behold, but together, we were magnificent—unbeatable super-organisms who hunted woolly mammoths, built suspension bridges, and took over the planet.
The average person in 2009 was less empathic than 75 percent of people in 1979.
The modern world has made kindness harder. In 2007, humanity crossed a remarkable line: For the first time, more people lived in cities than outside of them. By 2050, two-thirds of our species will be urban. Yet we are increasingly isolated. In 1911, about 5 percent of British citizens lived alone; a century later that number was 31 percent. Solo living has risen most among young people—in the United States, ten times as many 18- to 34-year-olds live alone now than in 1950—and in urban centers. More than half of Paris’s and Stockholm’s residents live alone, and in parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles that number is north of 90 percent…