We are in a crisis of loneliness: another reason to stop our phones
It rained one morning this week. I returned to Texas last year, partly because of torrential rains. Here it rains decisively, gloriously, as if it really wanted to. It explodes, hammers, roars, thunders and then, suddenly, starts again. I walked onto my back porch, not wanting to miss the show.
I sat silent, smelling that indescribable smell of rain and stretching out my hands, palms open in supplication, the same position I use in church to receive communion. The physicality of the experience, the sensual joy of sounds, smells, touch and sight, was deeply humanizing. In a very concrete way, I am made for that. I have to notice the rain. I am made to love him.
We are creatures made to encounter beauty and goodness in the material world.
But digitization is changing our relationship with materiality – both the world of nature and of human relationships. We are trained by technology (and tech companies) to spend more time on screens and less time noticing and interacting with this touchable, feelable, touchable world. Social media in particular trains us to notice what is big, loud, urgent, trending, and distant, and thus to miss the small, quiet importance of our near and limited embodied lives.
I re-read Michael Pollan’s 2008 book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” He writes that how and what we eat was historically grounded and determined by community, religious practice, nature and culture. Then came an industrial revolution in the American food industry that reached its peak in the second half of the 20th century. Technology promised to improve our health and our diet. Not only has this changed the way food is grown, but we’ve also started to redesign foods to supposedly prevent bad things (like saturated fats) and boost good things (like vitamins).
The industry promised a glorious new era. It delivered on some of its promises: food is plentiful, cheap, and always available (no need to wait for growing seasons or worry about Twinkies expiring). But obviously there have been huge fallouts from this revolution, both for the earth through the destruction of the environment and for our physical health and well-being. Pollan writes: “The chronic diseases that are killing us now can be directly attributed to the industrialization of our food. His advice is to return to old habits, to wisdom, to reclaim sustainable and community consumption patterns. It reminds us of “history, culture and tradition”.
Reading the early promises of junk food, it now seems so naive. And also hubrist. How did so many people become convinced that we could change something as basic to being human as eating and not have huge unintended consequences?
I bring this up because I can’t help but draw an analogy with our current technological revolution: the rise of digitalization and social media. This time, the industry is reorganizing our social and community lives. We were told that social media would create deeper connections, that it would help spread democracy, that it would end loneliness.
What we are beginning to see, however, is that as the digital world captures more of our imagination and our time, the material world recedes and becomes less real to us. This has disastrous consequences.
In an April article on teenage mental health for The Times, Matt Richtel wrote, “Recent studies have shown that teens in the United States and around the world increasingly report feeling lonely, even at a period when their use of the Internet exploded. He quotes psychologist Bonnie Nagel, who said teens are “hanging out” with friends online, but “it’s not the same social connection we need and not the kind that keeps you from feeling lonely”. There is plenty of evidence that this is also true for adults.
Richtel’s article and another article published the same week by The Times point to the emerging trend of people having romantic relationships with fictional characters, rather than human beings. There is evidence that teens are consuming more pornography, even though fewer of them are having sex. In an article for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson highlights the growing concern that screen habits are replacing beneficial experiences for children, noting that compared to the early 2000s, teens are less likely to “hang out with friends, get their driver’s license or playing youth sports.” They are also less likely to get enough sleep.
“Children today spend less time outdoors than any other generation,” reports the National Recreation and Park Association, “spending only four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play a day while spending an average of seven hours and a half in front of the electronic media.” I realized recently that I could identify more sight applications than tree species.
We are made to appreciate the physical presence of other human beings. We are made to enjoy thunderstorms or the sun or walks in the woods. We are made to appreciate tangible things. We cannot escape or overcome this need through technology. Our attempts to do so run counter to our deepest human needs and aspirations.
Claims that we can fundamentally alter the way human beings have learned, lived, and interacted together in essential institutions and activities like education, worship, friendships, dating, communities, work, and parenthood without major unintended social consequences smacks of hubris and reductionism that told us to toss the apples and make way for processed fruit snacks. But instead of increasing heart disease and cancer, this revolution breeds social disintegration and soul pathologies.
Reading Pollan, I am struck by how there is something irreducibly mysterious in the way food nourishes us. Pollan points out that traditional consumption patterns are good for us in ways scientists don’t understand. He says oceans of ink have been spilled analyzing the Mediterranean or French diet “in hopes of identifying the X-factor of its healthiness”. But the “whole” of traditional food is “obviously greater than the sum of its parts”. It simply cannot be reduced, measured and changed without losing something essential for health.
In the same way, I think we are discovering that there is something essential and mysterious – dare I say, holy – in the interaction of human beings in person and with the natural world that cannot simply cannot be reproduced in virtual reality.
So what do we do? In his book “Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing”, Andy Crouch writes: “Perhaps the two best starting moves, for those of us swaddled in ease and intoxicated by our technology, are in the natural world – the world of stars, snow and rain, trees and deserts – and in the relational world – the world of real bodies and heartbeats, hands and faces .
Just as people have worked to revive slow, unprocessed, traditional food, we must fight for the tangible world, for sustainable ways of interacting with others, for holism. We need to reconnect with material things: nature, the ground, our bodies and others in real life. It doesn’t have to be big and dramatic. We don’t have to throw our computers into the sea en masse.
But we must intentionally resist the siren song of digitalization, which on the whole promises far more than it can deliver. We must be careful and wise about introducing devices into our lives that fundamentally change the way humans interact since time immemorial. We must primarily immerse ourselves in the natural world and embodied human relationships, with all the complexity, challenges, inconvenience and pain that entails.
Go watch the rain for 10 minutes. Go for a walk with a friend. Quit social media and meet a neighbor. Keep your kids offline. Put your hands in the dirt. Play an instrument instead of a video game. Turn off your smartphone and have dinner with people around a table. Look for beauty and goodness in the material world, and there find joy. The path back to ourselves, as individuals and as a society, is through old and earthy things.
The New York Times