Loneliness in a modern world

Ok, not sure exactly where this one is going to go so I’m just going to start writing and see what comes out, stream of consciousness style. The other day, I tweeted about how modern life seems to be pushing us in the direction of loneliness. Twitter is not a very good forum for exploring any ideas in depth, really, much less complex ones with personal dimensions, so I didn’t get into the details, but the reason why I didn’t start off with a blog post in the first place is that this also doesn’t feel like the best place to discuss something intimate and emotional — it’s literally just "uploading into the void". I also wondered whether a Facebook post might be the right vehicle, but that didn’t feel right either: FB is too ephemeral, too filled with superficial "my wonderful life" posts from acquaintances I once knew to host a serious discussion.

So after a night sleeping on it, I decided to hash it out here after all. One of the reasons it’s hard to select a venue for this topic is that I’m not sure how much I should say, and about what. There is part of me that wants to do the rational/analytic thing, talk about societal trends, and try to analyze their impact. And then there’s another part of me that wants to just relate my personal experience. And I guess there’s a part that wants to do both. Even two paragraphs into this, I’m still not sure where I want to go with it.

Let’s start with the broad societal stuff then. I can’t be bothered digging up references to actual research, and it’s my blog, not a peer-reviewed academic journal, so I feel ok about just tossing out a series of impressions and leaving as an exercise for the reader the whole business of seeing how this stacks up against "the data". With that disclaimer out the way, it seems incontrovertible that a number of technology-fueled innovations have set us up to feel more lonely today.

These include the rise of remote work, enabled by technology and accelerated by the pandemic. Then there’s the transformation of almost every aspect of life by the internet, which seemed pretty fun and novel at the beginning, but with smartphones in every pocket and smartwatches on many wrists, it has taken on a new role as an ever-present distraction. Combine that with the effects of social media, engineered to maximize engagement, and we find ourselves in a dystopia where even when we’re physically together, we’re never really fully present. I live in Madrid, a city that apparently has one of the highest counts of "bars per square mile" of any metropolis, yet here — like everywhere else, I imagine — it’s hard to go to a bar or restaurant without seeing full groups, all heads bowed, every gaze fixed on a glowing, personal screen, as they scroll endlessly through shiny baubles and exquisitely captured "portrayals" of perfect lives on Instagram and alike. All of this, instead of talking to one another. And the truth is we don’t even need internet-enabled pocket computers to make this happen: I can’t help but notice when I talk to my parents on Facetime, 16,600 kilometers (10,000 miles) away, that they always have at least one eye and sometimes two on the television set playing endlessly in the background. With the younger generations, tactile screens have replaced the passive rectangle of TV screen, but the state of divided attention is the same.

Whether it be the naturally emerging "organic" properties of these platforms, the actions of hostile intelligence agencies seeking to disrupt our societies through them, the role of powerful corporate entities and media conglomerates intricately interrelated with the centers of governmental power, or a decidedly not-new marketing machinery finding new avenues for exploitation, all of this adds up to a state of constant agitation, wanting, conflict, and distress. Society seems more divided than ever, but I suspect that’s an illusion; we’ve always inhabited different worlds: what is new is that the differences between us are continually being made visible in a way seldom seen outside of wartime.

At a personal level, these global circumstances intersect with my own due to a series of choices that I made: choices like moving to Spain, where I don’t have a network of friends, and taking up remote work with a company where people in my timezone constitute a minority. And obviously, I’m on the internet, which is a choice too. I’ve done what I can to minimize the deleterious effects of social media without disengaging from it entirely[1], but there’s no denying that social media probably harms my life at least as much as it helps it.

Growing up in Australia when I did, I internalized — apparently permanently — enough of the traditional masculine ethos to ensure that I rarely talk about emotions and feelings. Given all of the above, you could say that I feel quite lonely, but I was raised (not intentionally, of course) to not talk about feelings. Instead of dwelling on my loneliness, I distract myself so as not to feel it. For example, I read a lot. I walk a fair bit. I work on software projects in my spare time. I keep occupied. And all of that stolid activity stops what is objectively a "lonely" existence from turning into depression. I simply exist, or perhaps you could say I exist simply, and I generally try to lose myself — my "I" — from subjective experience, not because I am some kind of enlightened Buddha type, but because I’ve found that if I can enter a "flow" state wherein awareness of myself recedes and my full attention is occupied by some other object, some problem, some focus, then that’s the closest I can find to being "happy".

I put that in inverted commas because I’m mostly defining happiness in the negative sense, as in, as an absence of suffering as opposed to the presence of something positive, like euphoria. This latter category of states, in my experience, is at best enjoyed only fleetingly. It’s nice work when you can get it, but I’m not going to organize my entire life around the pursuit of it. My definition of happiness, the thing I actually seek, is probably closer to "contentment", or "satisfactoriness" (and here I am starting to sound a bit Buddhist, I think). Basically, a state in which suffering is minimized, or at least one doesn’t dwell on it, just as one doesn’t long for things that one doesn’t have.

But despite all that, reality does occasionally impinge on my carefully constructed local environment. I can’t be in a flow state all the time (quite obviously, I am probably only in it a very minor part of my time). I live with small children, and every interaction with them is an uncomfortable reminder of my own inadequacies as a parent, as someone who feels they should be the best possible parent, partner, worker, and in general, human being, but feels like they are at best doing a half-assed job of all of the above. When I go out into society, as I must, I am jolted with the occasional harsh reminder of just how unpleasant society can be. Whether it be being on the receiving end of a bout of homicidal road rage, or experiencing rudeness in a supermarket checkout line, or just seeing evidence of people in general being assholes and douchebags, I can’t escape the sensation that our "communities" are weaker than they seemed to me in the past[2]. How much of this is reality and how much mere perception, I don’t know, but I find myself increasingly despairing of how bad things are and wishing to retreat back into my home to read a book until I’ve been distracted from thinking about how things are. One of the reasons I like books is because they generally have to pass through a great editing and publishing filter that ostensibly increases their quality, but also adds a bunch of latency between the moment of their authorship and my consumption of them. That delay may be months, years, or even decades or centuries. The hope is that, if something endures that long, then maybe it has some deep, residual value that makes it worthy of your attention in a way that a viral tweet or a flippant hot take may not be. Generally, I don’t find that things written in books have the same ability to raise my blood pressure that a current newspaper or a tweet does.

And maybe I am more sensitive to all of this of late because I’ve been participating in a clinical trial for a new drug. And no, I’m not talking about side-effects of the drug[3]. I’m referring to the fact that the trial takes several hours out of my work week, hours which I feel obliged to make up for, and which in turn means that I have ended up canceling a video chat that I used to have every two weeks with one of my former colleagues. It wasn’t much, but that one hour of video calling every two weeks was the only regular contact I had with anybody that I could call a friend. This is the end of an arc of ever-increasing isolation that I have felt over a number of years now: in 2005 I entered my current relationship which increasingly demanded that I prioritize it absolutely above all things in order for it to prosper[4]; in 2011 I worked at a start-up which was all-consuming and where the boundaries between "work" and "life" were blurred, but it did mean that I had a lot of friends there; in 2013 I became a parent, which meant that I had less time for socializing with those work friends; in 2014 I switched to a new job at a much bigger company, and involving a long commute, which massively curtailed the amount of work-enabled socializing that I could do (or hope to effectively integrate with my family life); in 2018 I moved to Spain and where I effectively began with a completely blank slate as far as friendships were concerned (and which remains blank to this day); in 2020 my meagre work-based socialization was curtailed by the switch to remote work due to the pandemic; in 2021 I switched to a fully remote role at company based in a far-off time-zone. Without getting into the fraught territory of comparing subjective experiences, I do spend about 23 hours a day either sleeping or alone.

Last May, I started visiting a psychologist. My working life hadn’t been affected by the pandemic, but my social life had: I had some surplus cash to spend, and therapy sessions seemed like a good way to convert money into "self care" (pre-pandemic, self care might have consisted in going out to a restaurant, and we barely did that at all in 2020 and 2021). I’m thinking of stopping it though, as I don’t seem to be making any progress. I’m not even sure what I would define "progress" as in this context. It can be hard to change much in yourself once you’ve been on this planet for a few decades, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting anything dramatic, but I can’t shake off the feeling that I am going nowhere with this, even though I don’t exactly know where I would realistically wish to go. In a nutshell, it comes down to this: I think I avoid talking about anything truly painful or risky in these sessions, and they effectively turn into superficial "rent a friend" meetings in which I get to bore somebody for 50 minutes — talking about whatever the heck I feel like — in a way that I would not feel comfortable doing in a real social context. If that’s really all I am going to use the sessions for, then perhaps I’d be better off just writing blog posts instead.

The thing I don’t really want to talk about with my therapist is that, at a very low level that I am internally quite aware of, but which I rarely make any explicit acknowledgement of, I don’t really like myself very much. That’s why I’m so good at seeking out flow states and getting into them; because they’re the best tool I’ve ever found for making myself "disappear" from my own consideration. And I haven’t been able to bring myself to talk to my therapist about this because any such discussion would seem to have as an implicit goal, a desire to reprogram my internal worldview or interrupt the related internal dialogs that go with it. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to replace my reality with another one, even if that reality is in some way "healthier" for me[5]. The thing about reality is that it seems, er, real, even if it is just your own reality (and the truth is, unless you’re completely unhinged, there’s got to be at least considerable overlap with how you perceive yourself and the world to be, and how other, similarly "well-hinged" people see these things to be). I like reality. I like "truth". I like "facts". I know these are only ever contingent and provisional, but it’s very deeply ingrained in my to seek these things out. Maybe you can make the argument that "ignorance is bliss", and once you’ve reprogrammed yourself to see yourself more positively, you won’t be troubled by the pesky fact that you had to effectively brainwash yourself in order to talk yourself into believing that you’re a good person. But it just seems so much easier to do nothing at all, and continue being really good at distracting yourself with flow states, books, YouTube videos, and other fleeting nonsense that has literally zero significance at a cosmic scale, just like you, me, and everything else that has ever existed. If you can do all of this in a state of relative contentment, keeping overt suffering at bay, then that seems like quite a reasonable outcome. And in the meantime, I’m just going to try to be the least of an asshole I can, to minimize the downside on others that any of my own choices might have.

  1. On Twitter, for example, I follow almost nobody, and instead add people to private lists that I can dip into as mood and appetite permits. On Facebook, I mostly passively consume, preferring not to volunteer too much content of my own, nor engage on anything that might be controversial or conflictive. ↩︎

  2. And you could be forgiven for remembering here, and wondering if it might apply to me, the old adage: "if everybody around you is an asshole, then guess what: you are the asshole". ↩︎

  3. I’ve got a 50% chance that I’m in the placebo/control group anyway, but regardless of the group I’m in, I’ve had all manner of blood draws and other samples and measurements taken, none of which seem to be showing any significant difference at this stage. ↩︎

  4. For complicated reasons which it doesn’t feel appropriate to go into on a public place like this blog post. The only reason I mentioned even this much is that I don’t think anybody is going to read it, or if they do, they won’t do anything with the information. ↩︎

  5. Obviously, if you don’t like yourself much, then it’s hard to make a priority of looking after yourself. ↩︎