15 September, 2013

The Innovation of Loneliness


Shimi Cohen wrote the script and created the design and animation of the video above. He based this piece on Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together. It poses the question, “What is the connection between Social Networks and Being Lonely?”

It is one of those visualisations that challenges the brain. Very quick successions of input, some subtle and others confusing; needing thought as the verbal message keeps roaring down the tracks.

I was having some difficulty following the script, so I clicked on the automatic annotations. Boy, was that ever amusing. It made little or no sense at all. Admittedly, Mr. Cohen does talk very quickly, but seriously:

“invention of language in gossip as hell sleep larger and more group just a logical research indicates that the maximum naturals I think group humans is roughly 150 members”  

Instead of,

“The invention of language and gossip has helped to shape larger and more stable groups. Sociological research indicates that the maximum natural size of groups for humans is roughly 150 members.”

The obvious discrepancies drove me to sit down this morning and write out the script as it is spoken (see below). Reading the text slowly, allowed me needed time to slowly ponder the ideas presented.

Generally, I find them interesting. Yet, I think they only apply when you restrict Social Networks to just a few, though admittedly powerful, platforms like FB and Twitter. There are many social media platforms, Wikipedia being the most notable, where Mr. Cohen’s and Ms. Turkle’s hypothesis probably wouldn’t hold.

Here’s the script. Not without errors, but at least a more approximate facsimile.

A simple fact, monkeys that a known to have a developed social life, organize in small groups with several dozen members. The size of each of these groups is limited. In order for them to function, all members of the group need to know each other well. The average size of the group changes from 20 to 50 members. When the number of monkeys in a group passes a certain threshold, the social order crumbles and the group tends to split into two separate groups. A similar situation can be found amongst humans as well.

The invention of language and gossip has helped to shape larger and more stable groups. Sociological research indicates that the maximum natural size of groups for humans is roughly 150 members. Most humans are just incapable of intimately knowing more than 150 people. So even today the threshold of human organizations around the number of 150 members.

Man is a social creature and the feeling of loneliness can drive them mad. Yet, the western and modern world sanctions individuality. The individual is measured by personal achievements, such as having a career, wealth, a self-image, and consumerism. In this course of action, many people lose their social and familial connections, in favor of a self-actualization ideal. As a social fabric in the western world weakens, it is not surprising that more and more people define themselves as lonely. And thus, loneliness has become the most common aliment of the modern world.

One of the possible reasons for the aliment is the online social network. In a world where time is money, in which our surroundings heavily pressure us to achieve more and more, our social life becomes tainted and more demanding than ever before.

And then there's technology. Simpler. Hopeful. Optimistic. Ever young. We become addicted to virtual romance disguised by The Social Network, which supplies an impressive platform that allows us to manage our social life most effectively. However, our fantasies about substitutions are starting to take a toll. We’re collecting friends like stamps, no distinction of quantity versus quality, and converting the deep meaning of intimacy in a friendship with exchanging photos and chat conversations.

By doing so, we are sacrificing conversation for mere connection. And so a paradoxical situation is created, in which we claim to have many friends while actually being lonely.

So what is the problem with having a conversation? Well, it takes place in real time and you can’t control what you're going to say. And that is the bottom line. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the Self as you want it to be. We get to edit and that means, we get to delete.

Instead of building true friendships, we’re obsessed with endless personal promotion. Investing hours on end building our profile, pursuing the optimal order of words in our next message, choosing the pictures in which we look our best. All of which is meant to serve as a desirable image of who we are. We are expecting more from technology and less from each other. The social networks aren't just changing what we're doing, but also who we are. And that's because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable.

And we are vulnerable. We are lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. While the social networks offers us three gratifying fantasies. One that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be. Two that we will always be heard. And three that we will never have to be alone. And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to change in our psyches.

It's shaping a new way of being. The best way to describe it is, “I share therefore I am”.

We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings, even as we're having them. Furthermore we’re faking experiences so we have something to share. So we can feel alive. We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. But we are at risk because the opposite is true. If we are not able to be alone, we are only going to know… how to be lonely.


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