The modern way of life extracts payment for all its wonders in the currency of loneliness. According to John Cacioppo, a researcher who studies such things, about half of us report chronic and agonizing loneliness.
We know this not only from social science research, but also because we feel it. We sometimes hear that technology keeps us more connected than ever, but we know in our gut that’s not the full story. We know technology does as much or more to isolate as it has ever done to bring us together.
But the isolating effects of technology are only the leaves on the loneliness tree. Its roots lie in more fundamental cultural trajectories that have “freed” individuals from every unchosen obligation and detached us from family, faith, and place. And this “progress” has freed us, it turns out, from the very things that fulfill us.
World’s First ‘Minister for Loneliness’
So many of today’s philosophical convictions express themselves in material realities. Ever since the industrial revolution, technology and mass culture have motivated people to leave behind traditional village life and the strong social bonds that characterized it. For all its legitimate benefits, industrialization has been synonymous with urbanization, fragmentation, disenchantment, and, of course, loneliness.
Our loneliness problem has become so severe that at least one nation’s government is attempting to solve it. Earlier this year, UK Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the first Minister for Loneliness. Tracey Crouch will take over the post and try, through the application of modern ideas, to solve a problem largely caused by modern ideas. The shortsightedness of this approach guarantees its failure.
The problem is no better in America, and will likely only worsen.
Depersonalizing Your World
Consider this story about Amazon Go, Amazon’s new cashierless convenience store in Seattle. Shoppers walk in with an Amazon app installed on their phones, pick what they want from the shelves, and leave. To pay, customers scan their phones, and Amazon charges a credit card.
Amazon’s new store is just the next step in the modern depersonalization of the world. Depersonalizing social spaces has been going on a long time, but it continues to reach new heights as computers assume formerly human tasks. Sure, there are store employees, but one wonders why. Soon, they too will be replaced. They must be. Their elimination is demanded by the pursuit of the perfect modern experience: shopping completely unhindered by social interaction.
The depersonalization of the world has turned personal interaction into a commodity all its own. This is obvious when you think about higher education. Most students considering college must choose between large state universities where they will be anonymous and smaller schools where the interactions will be more personal. Want the more personal environment? Pay up.
Made for More than Isolation
In the future, you will be able to shop at a place similar to Amazon Go but totally devoid of human contact—or at the niche market down the street where you’ll pay higher prices for someone to smile at you. In other words, get ready to be even lonelier.
Hidden in the story about Amazon Go is another sign of our lonely culture. The store has no shopping carts:
Since the checkout process is automated, what would be the point of them anyway? Instead, customers put items directly into the shopping bag they’ll walk out with.
Amazon Go, in all its technical glitz, is designed to serve the atomistic individual. Only people shopping for themselves, one meal at a time, walk out of a store with a single bag. Shopping carts are only for families. The elimination of carts in the new kind of store is a sign of the new kind of people we are becoming: isolated, consumeristic, impulsive.
The elimination of carts in the new kind of store is a sign of the new kind of people we are becoming: isolated, consumeristic, impulsive.
So Amazon has recognized our loneliness and responded in a modern and perhaps especially American way: by creating the lonely person’s perfect consumer experience. But just as the UK’s Ministry of Loneliness is destined to fail, so too, in the long run, is this market-oriented response.
The human heart is not infinitely flexible. Its basic desires for connection, for meaning, for transcendence are fixed. Eventually those desires will reassert themselves, probably in ways we cannot now imagine. We will find new ways to connect with our fellow humans for the simple reason that this is how we are, by creation, wired. We are crafted in the image of a relational God. No wonder individuals cannot understand themselves, or the world, in isolation from human community.
When these fundamental human desires reassert themselves, things will change for the better. Until then, and for the foreseeable future, we must all struggle on, purchasing our new baubles and trinkets in the coolest way possible, and taking them home to enjoy alone.