The modern way of living extracts payment for all its wonders in the form of loneliness. According to John Cacioppo, a researcher who studies such things, about half of us report enduring chronic and agonizing loneliness.
We know this not only from social science research, but because we feel it. We hear sometimes that technology keeps us more connected than ever, and we know in our guts that’s a lie. We know that technology does as much or more to isolate us as it has ever done to bring us together.
The roots of our loneliness lie in the basic ideas of liberalism. Liberalism, with its emphasis on freeing the individual from every unchosen obligation, has corroded our traditional connections to family, church and place. Liberalism has freed us, it turns out, from the very things that fulfill us.
But, the sources of our loneliness are material as well as philosophical. From the beginning of the industrial revolution, technology and mass culture have motivated people to leave behind traditional village life and the strong social bonds that characterized it. 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 liberal government is attempting to solve it in the way liberals try to solve every problem: through government.
Earlier this month, 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.
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. Depersonalization of social spaces has been going on a long time but has reached new heights as computers take over what used to be human tasks. Sure, there are employees in the store but one wonders why exactly. Soon, they too will be replaced. They must be. Their elimination is demanded by the pursuit of the perfect modern experience: unnecessary 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, when they do interact with staff and faculty, largely treated like a number and smaller schools where the interactions will be more personal. But, they pay more for the personal connection. Soon, this will be the case everywhere. In the future, you will be able to shop at a place similar to Amazon Go but totally devoid of human contact, or you can shop at the niche market down the street where you will 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 culture of loneliness. The store has no shopping carts.
From the story:
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. People with families use shopping carts. 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.
In its way, Amazon has recognized our loneliness and responded in a modern but perhaps especially American way: by creating the lonely person’s perfect consumer experience. Just as the UK’s ministry for loneliness is destined to fail so is, in the long run, 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 once again assert themselves, probably in ways we cannot now imagine. When that happens, 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.