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The Solitude of Hyperconnectivity

By Matthieu Ricard on April 13, 2014

According to the American sociologist Sherry Turkle, so-called ‟social” media in fact constitute for the individual a way to be alone while still being connected to many people.* A sixteen-year-old boy, an inveterate texter, remarked with some regret: ‟Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation.” Young people have gone from conversation to connection. When you have 3,000 ‟friends” on Facebook, you can obviously not have a conversation. You just go online to talk about yourself, with a ‟regular” audience. Electronic conversations are terse, fast, and sometimes brutal. Human conversations, face to face, are of a different nature: they evolve more slowly, are more nuanced, and teach patience. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another point of view, which is a necessary condition for empathy and altruism.

Many people today are ready to talk to machines, which seem to care about them. Various research institutes have conceived of social robots meant to serve as companions to the elderly and to autistic children. Paro, the best-known therapeutic companion robot, is a baby seal developed at the Division of Intelligent System Engineering in Tokyo. It is meant for the elderly, especially those with Alzheimer's disease. These people are often deprived of social connections (in hospital or an old person's home), and this companion, which responds to touch by movements, little cries, and smiles, offers them a kind of presence. Sherry Turkle tells about having seen an elderly person confide to one of these baby seal robots and speak to it about the loss of her child. The robot seemed to be looking her in the eyes and following the conversation. The woman said she was comforted by it.

Might individualism lead to an impoverishing of human relations and to a solitude such that one can only find compassion or love from a robot? We risk having sympathy only for ourselves and managing the joys and sufferings of existence only in the bubble of our ego. On November 9, 2010, a Taiwanese woman got married to… herself, in a white dress, at a big ceremony, saying it was an expression of her promise to love herself.

* Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books?; Turkle, S., The flight from conversation, New York Times, April 24, 2012.