Interactive Theatre, Technology & Empathy

Aspen Ideas Festival – Jane Gauntlett presenting her “Big Idea” at the Grand Opening!

The other speakers are Vivek Murthy (Surgeon General of The United States), Moncef SlaouiRob SchenckIva FattoriniStanley LitowWalter IsaacsonBJ Miller & Barbara Bush

This will take you straight to Jane:

Written Version: Introduction

I’m Jane Gauntlett – I run a company called Sublime & Ridiculous – and my Big Idea is that everyone should try to make Saddam Hussein their pen pal.

It was during the first Gulf War, I was about 8 years old, and I had a very clear idea about what was going wrong with the world. The major problem, I decided, was that Saddam didn’t know the effects of his decisions. Surely no-one could knowingly cause so much pain for so many people. Perhaps he didn’t have a television… perhaps he was a bit stupid… perhaps it was simply that no-one had told him!

So I wrote him a letter.

Now since then, I have come to understand why my mother never actually posted that letter, and why the story normally gets a laugh from my people I meet. But the truth is that I still believe in that letter and what I thought was important to communicate to Saddam: empathy.


I want to be really clear about what I mean by empathy, because it’s a guiding force in almost everything I do. Empathy is not an act of emotional charity, given by haves to have-nots, from the healthy to the sick. When we think of empathy, quite often we are really thinking about is Sympathy, or Pity. But empathy is much more important. Empathy is about tapping into something inside ourselves in order to better understand someone else.

Nor is empathy only about negative situations. Empathy is also bound up with imagination, and other things that really make us human. It helps us design products for other people, it gives us innate feelings of what is right and what is wrong. It helps us make the world a better place for everyone, not just ourselves. I believe that empathy is one of the biggest driving forces behind all of the great ideas and people that you’ll see over the course of this festival. It makes us wince when we see someone get hurt and imagine that their pain is ours, but it also allows us to imagine the thrill of being able to fly.


The opportunity at the moment is to push empathy further than we ever have before. In my work, I use technology to try to take people closer to being someone else, just for a few minutes. To inhabit someone else’s experience for a short period, and literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (hence the name of the project). My work has focussed mainly on health, and using this approach to enable empathy in new and powerful ways. I want to reach leaders and decision-makers and continue to help doctors, families and societies to understand what it’s like to have Aphasia, or Epilepsy, or OCD.

But I don’t want it to stop there. I’m also trying to unlock other experiences for people. What is it like to be an astronaut and walk on another planet? What is it like to share the rare experiences that humanity has collected, but most people will never get to feel?

My Big Idea is that each and every one of you could be able, through technology, to empathise and learn from everyone else. Think of the most important or formative experience you’ve had – and imagine that you could let the rest of the world feel and live that situation for a few minutes. How much more would we understand about the world, and our people?