Deep Thoughts

The Loneliness Epidemic

February 02, 2018

Finally, there is technology. The concerns and fears that Martin Heidegger, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and other late romantics had about it now seem well-founded. Technology not only produces a sensibility in which the external world, with all its fascination and beauty, is reduced to mere utility. It facilitates our tendency to do the same to other people and, moreover, makes for exceedingly shallow and superficial interactions. Images and text messages replace nuance, tone, and the human face. And unsatisfying though those interactions are, people will return to them again and again, because like rats they have been conditioned by the sure stimulus that technology affords. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I spent a lot of time playing sports with other boys. Looking around my neighborhood today, I wonder where I might do so, were I a teenager. Perhaps I’d be playing video games instead. Depression is on the rise among young people, and surely one reason is the deep loneliness that results when technology replaces or mediates so much of personal interaction.

In view of the loneliness epidemic, which we should expect to only get worse in the future, the modern world seems deeply ironic. Over the centuries, humanity experienced a great struggle for freedom. It has been obtained, and for many people this is a tale of unstoppable progress. Thus, Enlightenment Now Steven Pinker calls his latest trendy good news. Reason, science, progress, humanism—forever and forever and forever! It is as if Pinker, whose very name seems parodic, were something out of Swift or Voltaire. His optimism is as reliable as his long curly hair. Meanwhile, modern freedom now culminates in the breakdown of the family, in cultures vainly trying to reconcile incompatible interests, and, more and more, in the individual alone with his gadgets. I am surely not the only person these days who sometimes finds himself checking his phone or his Facebook not because the device has alerted him, but because of some vague longing for human interaction. As a poet said, “If I have a taste, it’s not alone.”

Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote a fable about porcupines, who are meant to represent human beings. In their natural poverty, the animals huddle together to produce warmth. But the flaws in their nature are found to be like pricks, which prompt the few porcupines who are capable of self-reliance to withdraw from the others. Perhaps progressives, with their incomparable talent for minding other people’s business, might work up a new campaign of tolerance and inclusion, for indeed, not everybody can be a self-reliant porcupine. In a somber ceremony led by Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and other national sages, bad team members could confess their sins, whereupon they’d immediately be forgiven. “Accept me despite my pricks,” the motto might be. Or perhaps: “Here I am; now feel my pricks.” One imagines that feminists, with their well-known relish for masochism, would be delighted.

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