Can We Alleviate Loneliness with Technologies?
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, Skype, Gmail, iMessage, text message, phone call – a billion ways to connect with fellow humans in the digital world. Why is it then that loneliness levels are rising? Can technologies alleviate feeling alone?
Samantha, the technological female self to feel better
In the brilliant movie, Her, somewhere in the near future Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a letter writer going through an emotionally burdensome divorce and spending his time mostly with video games and only occasionally in human company, decides to try the OS1, an operating system with artificial intelligence. He decided for a female voice and the OS names herself Samantha. Through their interactions, the A.I. learns everything about Theodore, pays attention to his every need and reacts as sensitively and lifelike as a human being – or even more so. The man falls in love.
It seems to be a tale about the relationship between humans and technology. Some might have even been shocked that a man attaches himself to an unreal creature so quickly and so profoundly, but in reality, it’s a story about processing loss and how the man finds in himself his female self, and how he makes peace with it. Through the entire movie, in the majority of the scenes, he’s alone. If you turn off the voice, he will remain strikingly by himself. However, the humanized OS, Samantha helps him out of loneliness and in the last scene, leads him back to his friend, to human company, and he arrives at the stage of contentment. That’s the most technology could do.
But it matters a lot what kind of technology humans create, how we use that tool, and for what purpose. Theodore was playing plenty of video games before purchasing the A.I., and yet, treasure hunting in virtual reality couldn’t get him to feel any better. No wonder since they are tools for getting out of your own existence, creating a parallel world and procrastinating the attempts to solve your own problems. Then what about social media? What about chat programs, chatbots, and robot companions? Is any technology out there at the moment to alleviate loneliness in a meaningful way? Will there be any in the future? Do we need technology to solve our social problems and our abilities/inabilities to live and get in touch with fellow humans?
Estrangement, alienation, solitude, and loneliness
„I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” says Henry David Thoreau American writer and modern-day Rousseau in his book, Walden, who spent two years, two months and two days in the woods around pond Walden to reflect on life and society by walking out of it. He connected to his inner self, paid attention to his spiritual needs and growth and balanced himself into harmony with nature.
Solitude means something like that. The quality state of being alone or removed from society, as Jeffrey Lam put it on The Medium. On the other hand, he says that loneliness has a negative connotation, it means detachment from the others and the self, isolation on a more profound level. The state of alienation that could be felt the same way in the middle of a crowd or being at home alone – that’s the feature of our individualistic modern society concentrating in urban habitats. Feeling the heavy burden of ourself detached from others while being surrounded by more people than ever – and by more transmitters of communication than ever.
But communication is not conversation, and connection is not attachment. All the former are products of our fast, urbanized lives where we have seconds to tell our story and seconds to get in touch with a fellow human being. However, that’s not enough to form a deep understanding of anyone, and it’s not enough to find companionship that we are yearning for desperately. But as we have the deep longing for getting out of the state of estrangement, we have been building more and more technologies and connecting to more and more people than ever. Individuals in modern-day Western societies are practically never alone. That’s especially true for millennials. When was the last time you turned off your phone? When was the last time you took a walk by yourself for at least half an hour without any notification?
Still, the phenomena of the feeling of loneliness, the state of frustration that comes with it, and the desperate efforts to get out of it, are on the rise, hand in hand with one-person households. Of course, the latter also has many factors where, how and why the phenomenon forms, but our atomistic way of living and the fact that the ability to form meaningful relationships started slipping out of our hands are definitely part of it.
The price of loneliness
A recent study by the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that young people aged 16-24 felt lonely more often than any other age group of adults. That’s especially worrisome as they will be the sculptors of our future. As roughly 10 percent of all Brits regularly feel isolated, London appointed a “minister of loneliness” in mid-January 2018 – the first European nation to do so, but we believe others will follow their example soon. In the US, The New York Times labeled the situation as an epidemic, implying a growing number of lonely individuals also in the States. In Japan, the citadel of new-age seclusion, the average number of people in a Tokyo home already dropped below two in 2012. At that time, the NLI Research Institute projected that by 2020, living alone will be the norm in Japan. And that’s already happening with more and more people dying alone – they are called the kodokushi – and an emerging literary genre even trying to take pride in it.
However, that might be an erroneous path to follow as living a life detached from the company of others is not only a state of mind, but it also has severe consequences for the body. Being lonely can be as bad for someone’s health as having a long-term illness such as diabetes or high blood pressure, the leader of Britain’s GPs said in 2017. Moreover, researchers found that social isolation is a better predictor of early death than obesity. Studies have shown that people who are lonely are 50 percent more likely to die before their time, with research suggesting loneliness is as dangerous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more hazardous than being obese.
Bring back solitude instead of loneliness
What these studies show is that the misery of loneliness hurts body and mind. No wonder, loneliness feels terrible: you feel detached from society, you don’t understand yourself or the others much, you yearn for understanding but don’t receive it the way you would love to. As a solution, you turn to technology, try to get in contact with people but end up where you started or even lower. In a vicious circle that you don’t know how to get out of.
And on top of it, our perceptions about loneliness might also be changing. Perhaps, if you ask an older generation, who did not have the swarm of technology for communication at hand, they will consider perfectly normal to not have conversations with more than one person or no one for days – they will not feel lonely or isolated. Ask a millennial who did not have a message for hours, and you might get the sense he or she feels something’s not right. Moreover, we have arrived at the state where people can be so irked by left alone and quiet thinking that they’d rather administer electric shocks to themselves than be left alone with their thoughts for six to fifteen minutes, a 2014 research study found. That’s disquieting and shows how our sense of time about being alone is shifting and the amount of time felt normal to be alone is shrinking.
However, we truly need quality time alone for creativity and finding our very own purpose in life. The only way we can come to understand who we are and think through critical life decisions is through the self-examination that occurs in solitude. One study by the psychologist Reed Larson showed that adolescents who spend time alone are less likely to be depressed, do better in school, and feel less self-conscious when they are by themselves.
Could technology help?
Many people are blaming the “loneliness epidemic” as well as our decreased capacity for solitude on technologies. You are standing in line, and you don’t want to be bored, so you use your phone to distract yourself. When you sit on the train for two hours, you have your computer, your phone and/or some music – overindulged in impulses. But this type of technology use is just the way Theodore played video games in Her. They are simple distractions and a quick getaway from life itself.
However, is this the only way to use technology? The Medical Futurist argues that if we could build chatbots, A.I. algorithms, robot companions who could actually support personal growth, pay attention to people’s needs, then they would mean more profound tools for getting on with our lives and find out who we are. As Samantha reflected on Theodore’s life as if she were his female inner self, working with him through his tough period in life, that could be a meaningful way to use technology to alleviate loneliness.
Chatbots, social companions, and artificial intelligence as meaningful tools?
According to a recent report in the New Scientist, hundreds of thousands of people say ‘Good morning’ to Alexa every day, half a million people have professed their love for it, and more than 250,000 have proposed marriage to it. That’s no coincidence. We are yearning for profound attention and acceptance. What if a chatbot could help us get there?
We tested Woebot, a little algorithmic assistant aiming to improve mood couple of months ago. At first, it was weird for us to imitate a conversation with a chatbot personalized into a robot, as we were very aware of the fact that we are chatting with a programmed answering machine. Sometimes it’s amusing, it even had some uplifting words of wisdom to offer, but there was also a day when we thought how sad it would have been if we only had talked to Woebot that day. As a social companion, it clearly failed that day as it could not create profound attachment, but in the future, its development could arrive at that stage. It might mimic empathy sometime soon – and that would actually be a positive development in as much as it would help reflect on who we are, how we could improve and in what direction we might go in the future.
Social companion robots might have a similar effect on people. Remember the movie Robot & Frank? He is a senior living alone, and as his son cannot visit him as often as he would like to, he buys a social companion robot for him. He hates it in the beginning, obviously – it wants to change his life and his behaviors. The little robot suggests gardening, healthy food and walking in regular intervals. While the programmed device’s solutions seem to be arbitrary and not personalized enough, its entire presence gives a new impetus to Frank’s life. Instead of living life as before, he actually gets into new activities – that’s another question what those were. It might happen to seniors living alone in the future. As a consequence of having a social companion robot, they could forget they are living secluded – since these little helpers could get their minds off the topic – and do something they have never done before.
It’s not technology, it’s us
As a result, The Medical Futurist argues that technologies are what we make of them, how we use them and how we create them. Take messaging platforms, for example. If you have a friend who lives far away from you and you start a conversation paying attention to what he or she writes with all the courtesies that you would also use in real life, without having many other chat windows open with parallel conversations or watching YouTube videos all the while – that could be a meaningful conversation. Otherwise, you might flatter yourself what a great friend you are, and how productive you are at the same time by having a conversation and multitasking through all kinds of work tasks; but you might end up just lonely and miserable in the end. Why? You would hardly remember what the other person wrote or what you did at work so you might not react appropriately at either place and slowly lose one or another.
So, what’s the takeaway here? Paying attention to yourself and others in a meaningful way. With or without technology.
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