In an article for the Boston Review entitled “The Loneliness Scare”, Claude S. Fischer challenges the oft quoted mantra that we are all becoming lonelier. Rather than perceiving the increasing use of social media as a symptom of loneliness Fischer argues that technology enables the forging of new, and the cementing of already existing relationships. A century ago people moved around America to obtain employment and experienced loneliness due to the difficulty in keeping in touch with family and friends. However Fischer contends that new technologies today enable people to combat feelings of social isolation, consequently we can communicate, using computers with people who are situated at vast distances from ourselves, a facility not availible until very recently.
Fischer does not deny that loneliness exists, he does, however challenge the perception that we are all getting lonelier. The crux of his argument is contained in the final paragraph of the article
“Loneliness is a social problem because lonely people suffer. But it’s not a growing problem. Moreover, the loneliness that should worry us is not generated by a teen’s Facebook humiliation, a globetrotter’s sense of disorientation, or the romantic languor of a novelist. It is, rather, the loneliness of the old man whose wife and best friends have died, the shunned schoolchild, the overburdened single mother, and the immigrant working the night shift to send money home. There’s nothing new or headline-worthy about their loneliness, but it is real and important.”
Do Fischer’s views hold water?
The first issue which requires to be addressed when answering this question is the confusion which reigns regarding two separate states, that of loneliness and that of being alone. As I argued in a post of 20 April, (http://kevin-morris.co.uk/2012/04/20/the-bliss-of-solitude/), the two states are distinct and should not be conflated. Loneliness is a feeling of sinking into a deep, dark and bottomless pit from which there appears to be no escape. In contrast being alone can be (and often is) a liberating experience. Reading a book while sitting alone in a comfortable chair at home is for me one of life’s great pleasures. Likewise I derive huge fulfillment from walking alone in beautiful places, just me alone with the birdsong and my own thoughts.
Many of us will have been in social situations in which we have felt bored to tears, surrounded by those with whom we have little (if anything) in common. In the crowded party we can feel lonely and wish to make our excuses, leave and be either alone or seek out friends with whom we share common interests and values.
The second issue concerns the subjective nature of our experiences. The “party animal” seems at his happiest when in the company of others. He actively seeks out social gatherings and feels lonely when not engaging with others. In contrast we have the individual who enjoys the company of close friends but who’s idea of hell is to be trapped in a social situation with those with whom he has no connection. Such a person has no issue with spending time alone, indeed he welcomes periods of solitude to recharg his batteries. Being alone is for him an important component of the good life. Finally we have the true introvert those for whom human companionship is something to be shunned.
None of the above personality types are in and of themselves either good or bad. What conjuces to happiness in one person does not in another. I, personally believe that happiness is achieved through living a balanced existence, spending time with close friends but also being content (and deriving pleasure) from being alone. However I can not look into the hearts of my fellow man so have no overarching answer to what constitutes the good life.
Let us turn in closing to the issue of whether technology is making us lonelier. There is in my opinion no simple answer to this question. Doubtless some users of technology go online to fill a void in their lives, however others find new friends and partners via internet dating and social networks. The problem with technology arises when it becomes an end in and of itself, when people labour under the misconception that it can make them happier or better people. Provided that we regard the internet as a useful tool for facilitating social interaction there is no problem, it is when we start seeing in the internet a “good” in and of itself that we all risk becoming lonelier in the true meaning of the word.
For Claude S. Fischer’s article please visit http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.3/claude_s_fischer_loneliness_facebook.php
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