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A Brief History of Loneliness

  • A strong sense of community developed during the Middle Ages in Europe in response to political and economic breakdown.
  • On one hand the manor provided a secure economic environment, relatively isolated from the rest of the world, therefore cementing internal cohesion. On other other hand, the market represented not only a meeting point for sellers and buyers but also a permanent lucrative settlement for those profiting from the dynamics of markets. Both tended to foster socialization.
  • At the end of the Middle Ages the process continued in the cities that rapidly grew.
  • Intellectual life was very much about socializing (e.g. the salons of Paris) a so was scientific life in the universities.
  • Ordinary life was stationary with very rare emigration and strong family and tribal bonds. People spent all their lives in the same town, growing up and aging next to the same friends. The church and the market organized the main social events. People looked eagerly to festivities and fairs when the whole town got together. The main form of entertainment at night was storytelling.
  • The industrial age introduced a new pole of social attraction: the factory. Entire towns grew around factories. Factories themselves often organized the social life of their workers. Workers rarely changed job and frequently spent their lives in the same factory working next to the same coworkers.
  • Throughout these ages one had to physically move into remote spaces in order to be lonely. Hermits of one sort or another shunned social life, but it was not easy.
  • Loneliness came to be appreciated as a virtue of higher minds and it could happen only to those determined to make it happen. The normal state of things was to be continuously surrounded by family and friends, with little or no privacy.
  • The decline of socialization began at the end of the 19th century when some major inventions changed private life.
  • Cheaper and better lighting (all the way to the light bulb) and heating encouraged people to stay home.
  • Literacy removed the need to assemble around the only people who knew how to read. Eventually, reading became a private matter instead of being a public affair.
  • Faster and longer-distance public transportation and, later, the personal car encouraged people to live outside town and to spend more time outside the home, fostered job changes and emigration.
  • The record and the radio allowed people to listen to music at home, whereas previously music was a public event, shared with the community in a music hall, concert hall or town square
  • Television brought the family together but took the family out of the street.
  • People's desire for privacy led to the invention of the "single's den", the studio and one-bedroom apartment.
  • Increasingly, most of the socializing was not with family and childhood friends but with transient coworkers and housemates. Late-night entertainment became more prominent, introducing more superficial forms of socializing.
  • Better workplace design led to further isolation as workers were increasingly confined in cubicles, thus interacting only during a lunch break or in front of the coffee machine.
  • The convenience of shopping malls removed the social aspect of shopping at the neighborhood store, where the interaction of the customer with the seller was purely business and impersonal. The dedicated customer experience of the neighborhood store was gladly sacrificed for a faster shopping experience.
  • More and more people could afford the individual car, thus spending their commute hours alone in a car.
  • More and more singles could afford to live alone in an apartment.
  • Interacting with people knowledgeable about one's life was increasingly perceived as a waste of time with no appreciable benefit: better to interact with absolute strangers who are absolutely indifferent as the conversation tends to be more to the point.
  • Movies were still a way to get together when the only way to watch them was to physically go to a theater, but soon vhs/dvd rental made it possible to watch movies at home, a household that increasingly had only one member.
  • Portable music devices and, later, mobile phones introduced the age of the headset that isolated the individual even in crowded places.
  • Videogames isolated children and teenagers.
  • Teenagers attended schools outside their neighborhoods, lived in gated communities and were advised (often by their parents) to fear strangers.
  • Living alone, that used to be a luxuy reserved for rich people, was becoming a necessity even for the working class. The ratio of cars to people was approaching one.
  • The desire for ever more privacy made it feel odd or outright rude when someone came to visit without making an appointment, and clearly unwelcome to visit more than once a week or once a month or once a year.
  • Throughout the post-war period the rates of divorce and single-parent families kept increasing, while attendance at religious rituals (masses, feasts, pilgrimages, retreats) kept decreasing. These phenomena dramatically altered the traditional patterns of socialization.
  • Meanwhile, suicide rates kept increasing steadily like they had not increased during the worst times of the industrial age among people who lived in terrible conditions, and loneliness was a suspect motive. Divorce rates also kept increasing, and in some developed countries they did not increase simply because fewer and fewer people were getting married, preferring temporary superficial relationships (mostly driven by the desire not to do things alone but paying with the minimum degree of commitment).
  • The changing social structure has created new social classes such as "elderly orphans" (elderly people who cannot expect any help from their children either because they don't have any or because they have never been close) and single girls in their 30s and 40s (statistically less likely to get married and to have children than previous generations).
  • Legal liabilities and a vastly expanding class of vastly more sophisticated and greedy lawyers probably had something to do with the withdrawal of people from socializing, although this is harder to quantify.
  • While email killed the handwritten stamped letter, it probably increased socialization by making it easier to keep in touch with a larger number of people. Texting simply replaced the telephone call, but also shrank down the conversation to fragmented sentences, a format that limited how serious and profound the exchange could be.
  • Teenagers were forced to live a virtual life on the Internet because they were physically forbidden to live a physical life in their real-life neighborhood.
  • The number of long-distance friends increased exponentially with the advent of social media that made it possible to connect with virtually the whole world as new friends were just a keystroke away. Friendship on an industrial scale came, again, with its downside: a much more superficial form of interaction.
  • However, there was no more need for friends in a society that was highly organized and relatively safe for any individual to live a prosperous and luxurious life. In case of emergency, there was always a phone number to call. When needing a favor, it came more natural to pay a professional than ask a friend. Friends were a cost (an obligation) not worth paying. It was cheaper to hire a handyman than to owe someone a favor.
  • In general, wealthier societies tend to foster individualism. People are consistently lonelier in wealthier neighborhoods than poor people.
  • Therefore, social media offered the perfect combination: a rich social life with no obligations and absolute independence.
  • Increasingly busy lives (not only from the traditional time-consuming activities related to family, work and study but increasingly more from organized entertainmnet/hobbies) further reduced the time for live, face-to-face socialization.
  • The increasing job mobility of the highly dynamic capitalist economy prevented the consolidation of relations with coworkers, neighbors, commuters, etc
  • To be continued.

See also:
Piero Scaruffi: The Age of Loneliness
Piero Scaruffi: The Demise of Friendship
Paul Taylor: "The Next America" (Public Affairs, 2014)
Clive Thompson: "Smarter Than You Think" (Penguin, 2013)