Feeling Alone Among Others

By Matthieu Ricard on September 03, 2012

According to the Sherry Turkle, a noted psychologist, writer, and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, ‟social” media is, in reality, only a means to enable us to be alone while remaining connected to many other people!

A sixteen-year old boy who relies on texting for almost everything wistfully said, ‟Someday, but not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation.” Young people have switched from ‟having a conversation” to ‟staying connected”. When you have 3,000 ‟friends” on Facebook, you don't have real conversations with any of them. You only log in in order to talk about yourself to a secure audience.

Virtual conversations are momentary, quick, and sometimes brutal. Face-to-face conversations have a different nature altogether: they are slower, filled with nuance, and teach us to be patient. Participating in a conversation means that we need to see things from the others' point of view, which is a prerequisite to developing empathy and altruism.

Many people today are happy to speak to machines that seem to care about them. Research is being done to develop social robots designed to become companions for children and the elderly. Sherry Turkle watched an elderly woman confide in a baby seal robot and tell it about the loss of her child; the robot seemed to look her in the eyes and actually follow the conversation, which the woman admitted comforted her.

Has individualism gone so far as to lead to an impoverishment of human relations and to such isolation that we can find compassion only in robots? We seem to be increasingly attracted to technologies that offer the illusion of company without the demands of human relations. We run the risk of developing sympathy for our only own selves, and developing the habit of dealing with life's joys and sorrows within a bubble of egocentricity.

People often say: ‟No one listens to me.” Facebook and Twitter now provide them with an automatic audience. However, it has been found that social media are mainly a means for self-promotion.

Curiously enough, the development of these pseudo human relationships goes hand in hand with a fear of solitude. People are now afraid of being alone with themselves. Left to their own devices, they feel the need to log in. According to Turkle, people have gone from a ‟I feel something; I will share it by sending a message” stage, to a compulsive ”I need to feel something; I need to send a message”.

We lack the capacity to be alone with ourselves, and so we turn to others, not to establish an altruistic relationship and develop an interest in who they are, but to use them as spare parts to support our ever more fragile personalities. We think that by remaining ‟connected” we will feel less lonely, but the opposite is the truth. If we are incapable of being alone, then we are more prone to suffering from loneliness. A survey found that the ordinary American suffers from a strong pang of loneliness on average once a fortnight. According to Turkle, ”If we do not teach our children to be alone, they will always suffer from solitude”.

We also need to revive the habit of making conversation in the workplace and at home. People who often participate in conferences and meetings know it's generally during the coffee break conversations that the most fruitful interactions take place.

Article based on:
SHERRY TURKLE ‟Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other.”
SHERRY TURKLE, New York Times, The Flight from Conversation, April 24, 2012