Loneliness Is a Disease That Government and Technology Want to Cure – What Could Go Wrong?

Sheila Liming’s book “Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time,” explores how we used to simply hang out, how we lost our ability to do so, and the steps we could take to restore it.

Advertisement

Hanging out, according to Liming, is the unstructured or lightly structured time spent in the company of friends, strangers, or acquaintances. Though a simple concept, hanging out is essential to our existence, Liming argues, providing the space to seek intimacy, connection, and peace with other people.

As our world grows more insular and ornery, Liming suggests hanging out is an action we can — and should — prioritize, even if it means dragging ourselves away from the couch and opening ourselves up to discomfort.

Discomfort. Therein lies the rub. Everyone wants ease and comfort, and relating to other humans is sometimes challenging, awkward, and, yes, uncomfortable. One of my dearest friends is someone who I initially found intimidating. I perceived him to be a certain way, when he was anything but. So, I swallowed my discomfort, stood firm in my confidence, and pushed past my initial impression. Soon we found ourselves building a friendship, and he has become an integral part of my life. But in this Instagram and TikTok generation, people rarely give anyone that much time, let alone bother to spend any actual face time with them – and no, the iPhone app does not count. In a 20-year span, we have gone from speed dating to swipe right. How has that worked out for us? Is it any wonder the rate of marriage among Millennials/GenZ-ers between 20 and 40 is the lowest it has ever been?

According to Limming, technology is a catalyst that causes loneliness and isolation because it gives the illusion of comfortable communication without the awkwardness. But it is by no means the only causation. People spaces that used to help forge connection, like going to a 9 to 5 job, commuting to that job, drinks after work, clubs, and social events, are no longer places where people connect. Remote work has cut into this significantly, and the pandemic and its ills further contributed to the breakdown of social interaction. Our dependence on technology also contributes to the lack of socialization. In order to accomplish tasks and negotiate, we have to learn a certain set of soft social skills. Reading facial expressions and emotional cues (boy, did the masking ever do damage to that!). Learning to read body language. Smiling when appropriate. Shaking hands and making eye contact (my personal pet peeve). Listening to people, and learning when and how to speak (tone). Now, instead of forming sentences and carrying a conversation, we text emojis and GIFs. Instead of debating and confronting challenges, we ghost. And what happens when technology breaks down? I am a licensed amateur radio operator for that reason, because, at one time or another, it’s all going to blow up or shut down, and I want a form of communication that I know works. Just such a thing happened with AT&T in February, and it will no doubt happen again on a larger scale. So, the fact that we have become wholly reliant on technology, and it has made other forms of communication seem more challenging or difficult, does not bode well for forging and maintaining ties with our fellow humans outside of it.  

Advertisement

Another author has written a book about technology and human interaction. Sociologist Sherry Turkle is sounding the alarm on the dangers of people using AI in order to mitigate their loneliness.

During a talk March 20 at Harvard Law School, MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, whose books include “Reclaiming Conversation” and “The Empathy Diaries,” outlined her concerns over the fact that individuals are starting to turn to generative AI chatbots to ease loneliness, a rising public health dilemma across the nation. The technology is not solving this problem but adding to it by warping our ability to empathize with others and to appreciate the value of real interpersonal connection, she said.

Turkle, also a trained psychotherapist, said it’s “the greatest assault on empathy” she’s ever seen.

An assault on empathy and also a substitute for struggle. The concept of “ride or die,” made popular by the Fast and Furious film franchise, is sadly dying because many want to get out of the car after the first pothole. But it is one thing to have psychologists, sociologists, and academics discussing the human condition of loneliness. It is entirely another when the government feels it needs to intervene. Last year, my colleague Becky Noble discussed U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s five-alarm advisory on the topic of loneliness and his recommendations on how to combat it.

Surgeon General Murthy, in his 82-page advisory on the loneliness pandemic, has suggestions as to how America can fight its collective loneliness. It probably should not be surprising that included are what seem to be many left-wing ideas. Murthy suggests building more parks and libraries to “strengthen social infrastructure.” Ok, sounds good so far. Who is against more parks and libraries? But how can those new parks and libraries be accessed? Well, not just by “accessible” public transportation, but also, wait for it, paid family leave. Why do you need paid family leave to access a park or library? Can’t both of those be accessed on your day off from a job?

Murthy also talks about “reforming digital environments.” Not only did Americans spend an inordinate amount of time online during COVID — what we found there is not always good. No one is going to find their new best friend emanating from a computer screen, so is reform code speak for control? In Murthy’s advisory, “Pillar 4”  of the six pillars Murthy says are needed to combat loneliness includes subsections entitled, “Require Data Transparency,” and “Establish and Implement safety standards.” You be the judge.

Advertisement

Mind you, this is the same “Murthy” in the Missouri v. Murthy lawsuit before SCOTUS. So, all this talk about digital transparency and safety standards comes off patently false in light of the government demanding social media companies cyber stalk and censor the views and individuals that they do not like or with whom they disagree. It appears that, just like with the so-called pandemic, the government is working hard to invent yet another crisis that they plan to swoop in and solve. After 2020-2023, any time appointed bureaucrats or elected officials feel the need to speak to a problem, people immediately tune out. The experience of the last four years has made their agendas suspect. The initial appearance of care and concern for Americans is merely gaslighting. The real intent is to push some nefarious drug we’ll be forced to take or institute a program that we will be forced into. The fact that Murthy’s advisory has been picked up by the World Health Organization (WHO) should give one pause.

How do we resolve loneliness? Technology holds no good answers, and our government wanting to lend a hand is a non-starter. Unless it involves politics or public service, the government doesn’t need to be anywhere near this, because they are not interested in our building dependence on one another, but on the government. No, thank you.

Hanging out and deeper face to face interactions is not all that hard when you boil it down to basics. Making connections with our fellow humans requires three things: 1) shared values; 2) shared experiences; and 3) shared spaces. Human beings are wired for connection; devices may make connection seem fluid and seamless, but it is anything but. However, when we are sharing space, purpose, and ultimately our experience, that is the lubricant to the gears of community. To go back to that ride-or-die analogy, some roads are smooth, others rocky, others are full of construction and potholes. But when the focus is on the strength of the mutual connection rather than the mode of the vehicle or the quality of the ride, you often don’t notice it. I was told that a true test of a romantic relationship is taking a road trip together. When my husband and I were dating, we took several, and it did well to deepen our growing bond because it wasn’t about the journey or the destination; it was about each other. Making quality friendships and partnerships should be the end-goal. When we were kids, this was done just by playing kickball or riding our bikes until sundown. As adults, we’ve made things overly complicated.

Advertisement

Religious gatherings, academic endeavors, sports clubs, animal interests or niche interests are all ways to connect with other humans, and we become sharp and learn to be at our best when we focus on something outside of ourselves. As I have written before, doing a digital fast to break the dependence on social media and better facilitate interactions is key. Next would be getting out of our houses and out of our comfort zones. I am a child-free woman who is entering the crone phase of life, but I have formed friendships with adult and middle-aged women with children and grandchildren through a Bible study. Are there things that I don’t relate to or for which I have no context? Absolutely. But the end-goal is interaction and connection on what we have in common, not on our differences. Getting out of the house also involves a glam-up. Walmart couture notwithstanding, most of us do not want to go out in our pajamas or sweats; putting on our good clothes often helps us to put on our best face. 

There is no substitute for human interaction. While sometimes uncomfortable, it is essential to our mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, and it is not something we want to outsource through technology or allow the government’s involvement. As the “Hang Out” author Limming says, “Cultivating meaningful relationships and experiences requires active participation, effort, decision, stamina, and care.” But it is worth the investment of expanding your worldview and forging lifelong connections. “Reclaiming Conversations” author Turkle says, “Face-to-face conversation is where intimacy and empathy develop. At work, conversation fosters productivity, engagement, and clarity and collaboration.” 

Advertisement

We need each other, and putting priority on building interaction and relationships of all types can only produce rich dividends.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *