Could “digital determinism” – a term coined by my Culture Café colleague, Rochelle Furstenberg – be a cause?
Digital determinism is the idea that the development of digital technology determines our social structure and cultural values. As our lives fill with screens, big ones small ones, and in-between, we spend more time in their company, and less time with one another…and we are more lonesome than ever before. According to Dr. Shiri Daniels, professional director of ERAN, the Israeli emotional first aid organization, “Loneliness is the disease of our time.” More than 20% of the nearly 500 people who contact ERAN every single day reach out because they are lonely.
Have you ever been lonely? Of course you have. Loneliness is an unavoidable part of the human condition. It’s natural to feel lonely, especially following a break up, a death, or a move to a new location. We’d have no country music and no blues without loneliness. But there is another kind of loneliness, loneliness that persists, and that loneliness is deadly.
Loneliness steals more years of our lives than obesity.
Loneliness is as much of a risk to life as smoking.
Loneliness shortens a lifespan as much as poverty.
Loneliness is subjective; it’s the somber gap between the relationships you have and the relationships you want, either quantity or quality.
Our lives are increasingly isolated; more of us are single, live alone, have longer commutes, or work from home, without the casual social contact of the water cooler and coffee room. Social isolation can creep into a life, and with nothing to dislodge it, become the new normal.
People can become imprisoned in their loneliness, which is what happened to the troubled computer programmer featured in the American hit TV series, “Mr. Robot.” He hacked into his therapist’s private life and resonated to her isolation. That human connection enabled him to cry out in a therapy session, “I want a way out of loneliness, just like you!” Indeed many of us do.
Science has been able to observe the effects of loneliness even at the cellular level, although how it happens is not yet understood. This, however, is well understood: not only do we need human connection to be whole, we need it just to stay alive.
Being alone is not the problem. Solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Solitude can be delicious and necessary, nourishing peacefulness and creativity. Spending time alone can recharge one’s batteries…which are then able to connect.
As dangerous as loneliness can be, it is also noble; loneliness is the noble yearning for more and better relationships – for something greater than oneself – for connection. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once observed, “faith is the redemption of solitude.”
Do you object to digital determinism? Do you want to push back against the epidemic of loneliness? You can start today by calling that person you haven’t heard from in a while. Strike up a conversation with that neighbor who always seems to be alone. Technology doesn’t have to be destiny; we can make a difference.
And if you are lonely right now, it is important to remember that you are not alone. Welcome to the club…reach out and say hello to another member.