Every morning, without fail, I check my phone and gaze into the screen, mindlessly swiping and poking at a glowing piece of plastic and glass. Is this my search for a reason to be awake? A way to find some indication of what the day will offer? To feel a connection outside of myself?
Facebook, email, Twitter, and Instagram are all set into motion. This is, mind you, before I’ve gotten a chance to drink water, use the bathroom, or in some cases, stretch my body upward and out my particular brand of bunched-in, contorted sleep.
Despite the oddly satisfying feeling a notification or retweet brings – affirmation of thought, a little voice saying “Hey, the thing I like or said is liked or possibly said by other people too” – once I’m finished looking at the four-inch screen, I can’t help but feel a little bit lonely. Even emails or texts from those I love seem to remind me of the distance: I’m here, they’re there.
It’s not a down-and-out loneliness, mind you, but an inkling that things aren’t what they seem. No one is near you, everyone is everywhere in their own glow of electricity, a world prefabbed with all the information, entertainment, nonsense, and written communication one can hope to have at their fingertips.
It’s an empty feeling of having it all but not having anything. It’s a reminder that our journey into the age of information has come at a cost: We’ve lost touch, in a very large and real way, with our sense of humanity and with one another, even as other lines of communication have opened.
The Pandemic of Loneliness
Americans are lonely; one in five of them, if you believe research from John T. Cacioppo. The technology consuming world-at-large is lonely as well. The emptiness of loneliness is sometimes salved by knowing others are with you, whether in this same world or in this same sense of loneliness. A strange sense of technological battle fatigue becomes a shared trait. We’re all trying to figure out a better way to live and communicate with one another, and we’ve made some incredible advancements, So hey, we think, maybe this feeling will go away and be replaced by a much cleaner, less depressing feeling in the always-promised-but-never-guaranteed not-too-distant future.
But perhaps the very thing that’s converging our worlds is helping us lose focus of life’s grace and humanity, its atrocity and inhumanity.
My sense that people could be there, real and ready to communicate, or they could simply not be there, posting from one of the many social media scheduling platforms in advance, could be used as a proxy into the darker world of the nonchalance and increasing paranoia of humanity. Is this feeling why we look to the violence in Syria and the tyranny in Russia and the much of the Middle East with a general electronic shrug? Is this why so many people look at an atrocious event, such as the massacre of children at Sandy Hook, and question whether they’re all just paid actors meant to take away our guns? Is this why we look to our modern presidential candidates for some form of TV show rather than hearing about their thoughts and philosophies on issues that will come to define our existence?
Have we simply become too used to watching and lost touch with the human element of it all? Is it too surreal for our own good?
Whatever it may be, it’s killing us, or at least part of us. The Guardian’s George Monbiot wrote in 2014 that we’re living in the “Age of Loneliness,” a time when the young are just as lonely as the old. Loneliness affects 700,000 men and 1.1 million women older than 50, per an Independent Age study. A University of Michigan study finds that Facebook use produces decline in subjective well-being in young adults.
Why is loneliness malnutritious for the human mind? The Campaign to End Loneliness cites studies which say lacking real-life social connections, i.e. loneliness, is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Cognitive decline, depression, and dementia become more common. Loneliness is predictive of suicide. High blood pressure, obesity, and disability are more likely to occur in those who are lonely.
The very nature of social media is deceiving. By delving into a world of friends, lovers family, co-workers, and potential new and interesting people to meet, we express our primal desire to be with people. We’re social creatures, you see, and the thought of being able to tune in at an instant is too intriguing to pass up. It’s humanity at the touch of a key, something that has almost inarguably opened up new worlds via video, writing, photos, and the feeling of an experience from places we would otherwise never seen. It’s also an open door to information, giving us access to what would have previously taken hours of time at a library.
But since Monbiot proclaimed the Age of Loneliness two years ago, we’ve only seemingly gone further down the hole, spiraling into self-reference from some unrecognizable self and becoming further addicted. Concerts are seen through mobile screens instead of irises. Dates are introduced at bars for the first time as each party scrolls through other potential mates via a dating app. “LOL” is actually uttered out loud (el-oh-el) in an ironic-but-not non-laugh. Terms like “augmented” and the ever-present “virtual” are introduced and re-introduced, continuously assuring us that no matter how we feel, what we are experiencing is still “reality.”
The digital age has and will continue to inform and delight many. It’s a good thing when used well, allowing amazing levels of communication and insight. For others, the digital age will get too real and they’ll become lonely. It will kill others.
People who get most wrapped up into it, perhaps myself, were likely already prone to the thought of staying in for an evening or getting a break from the lights and crowds. Now, there’s a readymade excuse to avoid everything: its already there for you, at home, on demand, within a few swipes and touches of a screen.
While this may feel the same as going out with friends – after all, we’re seeing so many friends out and having fun, hearing about the good times they’re having, sometimes even seeing them broadcast live for our own amusement – human touch and contact has been proven to have very real mental and physical benefits. Touch and contact strengthens the immune system. Touch and in-person community helps the economy. Touch raises trust. It allows for a greater feeling of non-sexual intimacy and greater access to sexual intimacy. It creates friends and lovers and strengthens relationships. It allows us to think we aren’t so alone.
In David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” a precise takedown of 80s and early 90s television and its effect on literature and the viewership, he often refers to “Joe Briefcase,” the standard television watcher, and his six hours-per-day of TV watching. This became a malignancy, he argues, most relatable to liquor. “An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum liking it a little too much and needing it.” It becomes the problem and the cure. You feel lonely from your viewership, so you turn to your viewership to feel less lonely, an amazing tautology and self-driving addiction.
Americans, even back in 1990, were made lonely by media’s increased presence, according to Wallace. Looking at the 2-D images on the screen relieves that loneliness, but it also causes more time to be spent right there in front of the screen and away from the world, thereby working as a Band-aid. A solipsistic exercise to be sure, but the devil in the modern details is that not only do our screens allow us to unabashedly consume, they allow us to do it in the wild.
No more are we confined to our six hours of TV time at home; GlobalWebIndex reported the average user spent 6.15 hours each day on PCs, laptops, mobile devices, and tablets in 2014, with social media getting 1.72 of those hours. Add this to 2014’s 5.1 hours per day watching TV, per Statista, and you have more than 11 hours per day of media time. Note that this is time where the focus is taken away from the self or the other entirely and put, at least in part, on a glowing electronic void.
A Public Malignancy
Take any turn down any street in any major metropolitan city, suburban neighborhood, or, in 2016, many rural roads and you’ll likely see someone’s neck craned down at 15, 30, 45, or in some poor bastards’ cases, 90 degrees, to look into their virtual present.
It’s social in its nature, being out in the real world among people and nature, the skyscrapers of big cities and friendly waves of rural America. But the focus and attention are entirely on a variety of undefined self. While you’re in that world, you’re left with your thoughts, your choice of consumption, your feeling, your time, and your curated experience. But are you the driver or simply the conduit? Are you perhaps aided by some form of artificial intelligence and algorithm you don’t quite realize is there, an invisible hand guiding your experience and thereby having an all-too-real effect on your chain of thoughts?
Our relationship has become almost uxorious to our devices, one that allows for offense if you remind one that they’re using it in any capacity. Have you ever asked someone to stop using their phone mid-conversation or mid-meal? Alerted them to the stasis in conversation or relationship that a device is being allowed to create? It’s always a reaction of shock, regret, or anger from the other person, in my experience. Perhaps I just say it like a jerk, or perhaps we don’t fully realize how wrapped up we are in this other world.
Meanwhile, another world is sitting directly in front of our faces.
The Great Irony
The great irony of this post is that as soon as I’m done, I’ll post it across social media sites. Then I’ll kick back, take a sip of water, and unlock my phone.
Oh well. Seeya online.