Lonely in an Electronic Wilderness: "The Great Emotional Sickness of Our Era"


“Technology allows us to separate ourselves from reality – moving people away from the real to the imagined, from the emotional to the controlled,” observes Derek V. Smith in an email interview with me.

The author of A Survival Guide in the Information Age sees a darker side to the proliferation of personal gadgets and the use of technology in daily life. “Escaping into technology, someone can create false worlds, identities and experiences.”

As I sit on a bus en route to my local university library, his words hit home. The few passengers on board are not participating in the here-and-now but are absorbed in a hypnotizing alternate universe of mutually exclusive cyber worlds.

One rider gazes idly into space as he rocks back and forth to the tunes spilling from his iPod. A woman busily pounds out text messages from her sleek clamshell Blackberry, her fingers flying frenetically. Yet another squints his eyes in concern as he surfs the corridors of the internet from his cell phone.

When I attempt to greet a fellow commuter opposite me, he returns my gaze without even a glimmer of shared humanity.

Uneasy and alienated, I turn on my own iPod and surf through the one-hundred plus digital music files, but none sustain my interest. I can't help but feel that technological gadgets are keeping people apart and breaking down our society.

Malignant Self-Love author Dr. Sam Vaknin echoes my lament. "Technology had and has a devastating effect on the survival and functioning of our core social units, [rendering it] atomized and anomic."

Elaborating, he adds, "Modern technology allows us to reach out, but rarely to truly touch. It substitutes kaleidoscopic, brief, and shallow interactions for long, meaningful and deep relationships."

It seems to not only be wrecking havoc on interactions across society, but is even breaking down intimate relationships.

In what Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni eloquently calls "the great emotional sickness of our era," people are finding themselves increasingly detached and drifting away from intimacy.

"It is not that I don't value friendships," says Chelsea, an overworked forty-something who puts in 10-hour days at her high-tech company. "But often with work and personal schedules, it is hard to coordinate a meeting time with friends."

Joe Vajgrt, a part-time college student and a full-time employee, blames not only scheduling but also fatigue. "I'll be planning on spending time with people, but when the time actually comes around to see them, I prefer to stay home to recharge my batteries."

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace make it possible for him to keep in touch with hundreds of friends, but he admits feeling even more isolated after spending time online because such virtual connection removes the personal element of communication.

Perhaps most telling about the dwindling state of friendships is college student Justin's reaction to my question of how many friends he has. "Friends or 'friends'?" he asks. "I don't even know what the term means anymore."

Whether it is the proliferation of technology, dearth of time, or a shifting of priorities, polls suggest that Chelsea, Joe and Justin are not alone in their predicament. A 2006 study published in the American Sociological Review found that Americans had on average only two close friends, as opposed three, two decades ago. One in four Americans said they had no one to confide in, compared to one in ten in 1985, while the number of people who depend solely on their spouse went from five to nine percent.

Laura Pappano, author of The Connection Gap, asserts that this lack of connection with people who truly matter to us manifests in an inappropriate search for connection with strangers.

"We ache for closeness, for others to penetrate our being, but our desperation all too often shows," she writes. "People we hardly know - or don't know at all - seek the friendship equivalent of the one-night stand."

Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, head of the American Psychological Association, sheds more light on what our new world of electronics looks like without human contact. He states that the U.S. is in the throes of a depression epidemic, "where an American today is more likely to suffer clinical depression in their life than at any other time in the past 100 years."

What use are our layers of communication tools when so many of us are drowning in mental anguish?

"Technology does not loan you money or come by to see you when you are sick or sad. It may connect you with someone who does, but the characteristics that are truly human must be transmitted by humans," surmises Derek Smith. "Much of the human experience is about sight, sound, smell, touch, and intuition that in turn require human contact and proximity."

Our decreasing face-to-face interactions over the last 20 years may not only lead to social alienation but dangerous health effects.

Psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman believes that spending too much solitary time with the almighty gizmo may actually change our chemical makeup. In a recent article on the technology news website cNet, he cautions internet addicts that "there does seem to be a difference between 'real presence' and the virtual variety."

According to Dr. Sigman, our crucial love and cuddle hormone, oxytocin, activates when we're with other people. If we produce less of this hormone because of a lack of social interaction, it can undermine our immune system.

There's something to be said for the spontaneity and richness that only a real-life meaningful encounter with a person can bring. After all, how do you convey with electronic devices the magic of a smile, hug, handshake or infectious laughter?

But to be fair, technology alone is not to blame. Technology is only an enabler. I blame us: we have chosen to be over-plugged and under-connected, to immerse ourselves in an endless, unrestrained virtual experience. Add to this the cut-throat individualism, workaholism, suburbanization and relentless consumerism that define our modern existence, and we may have found ourselves slowly slipping, in the words of T.S. Elliot, "into a splendid desert, a domed steepled solitude, when a stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race."

Fortunately, there are still places left in the world untouched by the tyranny of twenty-four hour technology. I think fondly of a time I spent in a remote, self-sustaining fishing village on the Turkish Lycian coastline, where people greet the day not to the shock of an alarm clock, but to the rays of sunlight stealing into the room. At the end of a hard day's work, villagers gather in the rich traditions of Mediterranean cafs ringing with boisterous conversations. On weekends, friends and family gather around the kitchen table, share stories and nibble on figs and olives as they slowly sip their tea. Conversations drift in and out as children play in the narrow, cobbled streets.

There, people connect, not through their Blackberries, cell phones, or laptops, but physically, emotionally and intellectually in flesh and blood. There, the only sign of our times is an internet caf that houses only two computers with a connection speed that would test any outsider's patience.

These organic ways of living, it seems, will never again come into existence in our post-industrialized Western world. Meanwhile, "we still have the power to set limits," as Pappano reminds us. "If we can find the opportunities to reach out, - and not retreat - we may find that in our quest for meaning and richness we are, in the end, not so alone."

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