Emile Durkheim’s 1897 text Suicide was required reading when I was an undergraduate. The book can be read on many levels but is in essence a sociological review of the conflict between societal norms, expectations, individual practices and the pressures and freedom to develop both societal and individually. Durkheim used the concept of anomie to describe the conflict between society and the industrial revolution occurring at that time, a revolution that required a strict adherence to consistency and assembly line type functioning and the needs that individuals have to find less structured and constricting ways to contribute to society. As I understand it, according to Durkheim this conflict was, one between inertia and the need for change. In later works and then in common usage the term anomie which Durkheim referred to as the core concept for his theories has come to mean a feeling of being “at loose ends” and the social or psychological use of the word has been linked to the emotional lethargy and hopelessness linked with depression and ultimately suicide. For example, at a case conference I recently attended the presenter referred to his patients’ “overwhelming sense of anomie” that led the clinician to conclude “that the patient was heading for a suicidal act.”
It turns out that there may be something prophetic to that old college reading list. If you are among the generation that was required to read Durkheim in college you may have a significantly higher rate of anomie. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if you are a middle aged male you may well be part of a growing trend toward the pathology described as anomie. The CDC recently reported that in the United States the suicide rates of male baby-boomers rose almost 50% between 1999 and 2010. Similar increases have also been reported in European countries as well. In short, it appears that men in their 50’s and 60’s and beyond are having difficulty coping with the changes they are being forced to accept as they age. These changes may include fewer opportunities for growth economically, socially and for personal freedom. The generation whose mantra was not to trust anyone over 30 is now double that age and they (we?) are having an increasingly difficult time accommodating to the changes that are part of the aging process.
Some have suggested that the financial downturn has impacted the rate of suicide and it may in some small measure be true but the increasing trend began before the economic fall. Others believe that many are suffering increasing anomie because the governmentally guaranteed security programs, blanket security their own parents were able to have in their later years, will not be available to them as they become increasingly frail. I believe that this variable may, also be contributory but does not explain it all. Other variables suggested include shrinking employment opportunities, less freedom both financially and physically to pursue hobbies both old and new and a shrinking social environment – these are also likely to be contributory.
I would like to suggest an additional variable to explore. My hypothesis is that this trend toward anomie is related to the shrinking social opportunities and increasing isolation but is also linked with the explosion of the world of virtual reality. There is a movement afoot to develop what tech specialists are referring to as “The Internet of Everything.” The concept is that all technological devices will be connected to each other through and including the internet. The classic example of this concept is that the GPS in your Smartphone will alert your refrigerator that you are entering the supermarket and the refrigerator will in turn survey itself and provide you a list of how much milk or eggs or cheese or meat along with fruits and just which vegetables you should purchase. That list will be based upon your normal rate of consumption of those items and just how much remains in your personal stock. Your wine cooler will do the same and your pantry can also be wired to do the same for dry goods. In fact and perhaps in deed this technology already exists to a very real degree although a universally accepted platform for the exchange of the information has yet to be agreed upon. But it is not just a shopping list issue. Technology can be programmed to monitor your need for exercise and turn on an exercise video, or it can suggest a restaurant to eat at depending on your mood.
It is just this developmental burst in the digital world that may be contributing to increasing isolation. Virtual connection is not the same as real, face to face connection. For a generation reared with the concept of love, peace, group activities even communal living the accelerating move away from real engagement with other warm bodies signals a frightening shift. Loneliness and isolation are signal signs of depression which is always a precursor to depression. Skype, Facetime, Tango and the like allow face to face communication but not the warmth of the touch or just the simple closeness of others. There is a lot of good to be said for the technological advances we enjoy but there may be some serious downsides to it as well, and anomie may be one of them. We should tread just a bit more lightly as we charge into the virtual world.