Ah, Look at all the Lonely People

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Google the word “freedom” right this moment and the first of 209,000,000 entries is the website for some sort of gizmo that allows your computer to essentially kick your ass off the internet.

Am I the only one who finds that profoundly sad? Am I the only one who generally finds the internet a lonely vacuum, a vortex, a votive candle in the men’s room of the noisiest shopping mall on the planet? Am I the only one who feels like I’m wasting way too much time nosing around in nonsense, having what’s left of my brains beaten in by jackhammers, and trying to “make friends” when I should be doing a better job of actually being friends?

I don’t think so. Daniel Akst, writing in The Wilson Quarterly, doesn’t think so either. In a piece entitled “America: Land of Loners?” Akst delves further and more thoughtfully than most other critics into the perils facing a generation that spends such huge chunks of its life in front of screens. “In restricting ourselves to the thin gruel of modern friendships, we miss out on the more nourishing fare that deeper ones have to offer,” Akst observes.

Aristotle, who saw friendship as essential to human flourishing, shrewdly observed that it comes…in three distinct flavors: those based on usefulness (contacts), on pleasure (drinking buddies), and on a shared pursuit of virtue–the highest form of all. True friends, he contended, are simply drawn to the goodness in one another, goodness that today we might define in terms of common passions and sensibilities.

“Land of Loners” is fundamentally a passionate defense of traditional friendships and meaningful relationships, but Akst isn’t just another guy running a jackhammer. He’s asking important questions, and at its core his piece isn’t even a cut-and-dry anti-net screed. He–like lots of other people–is simply trying to understand why so many of us are so lonely, so depressed, so unhealthy, and so disconnected from sources of genuine stability, connection, and vitality.

It’s probably no real surprise or comfort, but it turns out that more than 50 years ago a science fiction writer had a pretty clear and disturbing vision of where humanity was headed; the best sci-fi writers, after all, have always had a particularly keen understanding of the average human’s weakness for all manner of gee-whizery.

“In the late 1950s,” Akst writes:

far-sighted Isaac Asimov imagined a sunny planet called Solaria, on which a scant 20,000 humans dwelt on far-flung estates and visited one another only virtually, by materializing as trimensional images’–avatars, in other words. “They live completely apart,” a helpful robot explained to a visiting earthling, “and never see one another except under the most extraordinary circumstances.”

Should you find any of this as troubling as I do, there’s another gadget out there that’s designed to limit your social networking. You can buy it, of course. It’s called Anti-Social, and, like Freedom, it’s designed to boot you back into the real world.

Source: Wilson Quarterly

Image by Marshall Astor, licensed under Creative Commons.

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