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Is Progress Possible? Our Lonely Century

Economist and author Noreena Hertz shares which solutions—individual, governmental, and entrepreneurial—she thinks will reconnect us.

What do university students in Britain and Trump voters in the US have in common? They’re lonely. In fact, Noreena Hertz says, loneliness is the defining feature of this century, thanks to a host of drivers ranging from the technological to the economic. The Progress Network founder Zachary Karabell joins Noreena, an economist and author of The Lonely Century, as she elucidates whether we’re really more lonely than we used to be, what has led, pandemic aside, to our current state of hyper-loneliness, and which solutions—individual, governmental, and entrepreneurial—she thinks are the best bet for reconnecting us. Watch the video in full or read an extract from the conversation below. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Zachary Karabell: There’s this eternal question of trying to understand the present relative to the past and how human needs and expectations have perhaps shifted. It seems to me that a lot of the human condition has been being alone, sometimes even physically detached from a community, tribe, or clan—I’m thinking of the settlers on the American frontier, for example. Is the loneliness of today truly the loss of belonging to a community, or are we romanticizing that? In other words, is it an expectation of connection that’s augmented by the awareness of what is possible, even though what is possible is not always prevalent? 

Noreena Hertz (NH): Great question. The way I define loneliness is partly that feeling of craving connection with friends or family—craving intimacy, and feeling that you don’t have it. But it’s also a state of feeling disconnected in a more existential sense; a state of feeling disconnected not only from your friends and family but also from your fellow citizens, from your employer, from your government. It’s a state of feeling invisible not only amongst those closest to you but also vis-a-vis these bigger institutions that surround you. Of course, I’m not the first person to think of loneliness in this broader sense. Whether we’re talking about Marx’s alienation or Durkheim’s anomie, clearly there have been states of feeling lonely that we’ve seen in the past as well. 

But what I argue is that a whole host of drivers have come together over the past few decades that have accelerated and exacerbated loneliness and brought more people into that state of loneliness than have been in the past. There have been structural drivers, political, economic, and technological drivers, for sure, but also changes in the way we live our lives. We do less with other people than in the past. We’re less likely to be members of trade unions. We’re less likely to go to church. We’re less likely to be members of a parent–teacher association. 

So, it’s partly to do with the choices we’ve made. It’s partly to do with the outcomes we’re on the receiving end of. It’s partly to do with technology for sure. But it’s also to do with what we might think of as a neoliberal mindset. It’s a mindset that has, ever since the eighties, become increasingly individualistic; it’s a mindset that has valorized qualities like competitiveness at the expense of qualities like caring for each other and compassion. We’ve really come to recast ourselves over the past few decades as consumers rather than citizens, as hustlers rather than helpers, as takers rather than givers. And that mindset, that me-first mindset, was inevitably going to beget a lonelier world. So there are echoes of the past for sure, but things now have been ramped up for a whole host of reasons. And then the pandemic, of course, has just massively accelerated how many people feel lonely.

You focus on both technology and political frameworks as accelerants to these conditions of alienation, loneliness, and atomization. One of the only offsets to isolation and atomization during the pandemic has been technology, right? It’s been this ability to at least find some way to connect and discuss, which is somewhat the opposite of most of the tenor around the effects of technology—the Black Mirror thesis of technology—before March 2020. Has some of this shifted your view on technology, or did you always feel that these were essentially neutral tools that could be used to unite or divide, to connect or separate?

NH: I think it depends to some degree on the particular media we’re talking about. So, for example, Zoom—I did look at video before the pandemic, and I acknowledged even as I was researching and writing the book that it was a better form of communication in many ways than text or messaging, because the more stripped-back a form of communication, the less empathetic it turns out we feel. It still is nowhere near as good as being in person. And I’m sure that all of us feel that by now. A year into this, we’re grateful that we’ve had ways to connect, but we’re missing being in a room with people. It is a different quality of connection, even in a neurological sense. Our brains actually synchronize when we’re in a room with people, which is partially the reason we can feel empathetic. And it’s actually very hard to get that synchronicity on a Zoom call because of the latency of the time lag, the fact that you can’t really look in people’s eyes, and so on. Our brains don’t respond in exactly the same way.

There’s been this whole set of people trying to date during the pandemic and getting to know each other, they think, very well over Zoom: you’re talking, you’re interacting, maybe you’re really interacting. And then they meet each other, and suddenly it doesn’t work, even though the verisimilitude of all this is “of course it works”: I know you. I’m seeing Noreena. I see what you look like. I hear your voice. You would think that the next step of that, where you simply translate that into a three-dimensional, would be a seamless transition. And it’s fascinating, à la what you just said, that there’s so much that goes on that we take in at a pseudo-conscious level that we forget when we’re doing this, I kind of know you. We’re kind of having a conversation. But maybe not quite the way we think. 

NH: Right, because you can’t see how my legs are crossed. You’re not getting body language cues. You’re not getting my scent—all these subliminal cues. Absolutely. 

When it came social media, I was really agnostic when I began my research. I didn’t know if it was going to be a positive or a negative when it came to loneliness specifically. But as I dug into the literature and as I interviewed lots of teenagers specifically on this subject, time and time again it came out how excluded and isolated and lonely social media was making them feel. A 14-year-old boy was telling me about what it felt like when he posted on Instagram and then he would be waiting, waiting for somebody to like his posts. And then no one did, and it made him feel so invisible and worthless. Or there was another teen named Claudia, who told me about when her friends had told her that they weren’t going out after homecoming, but she saw when she got home that they were going out; they were out without her. She felt so excluded that she hid in her room for a week. 

Of course, kids were excluded in the past. But I think the difference is that in the past, the exclusion wasn’t broadcast. The shame wasn’t made so public. And also, an adult in the kid’s life would normally intervene, or try to intervene: a teacher would see a kid not being asked to sit with others and would make sure that they weren’t sitting alone, or a parent would see a kid not being invited to something. Nowadays, a lot of this exclusion is happening on their phones, and so the adult in their life isn’t even aware of it. But also, the level of abuse that young people are on the receiving end of when it comes to social media is of a scale that I had not appreciated until I began my research. Sixty-four percent of UK college students have experienced abuse on Facebook. One in three 18- to 24-year-old British women have experienced abuse on Facebook. And of course, if you’re being bullied, abused, et cetera, the world is going to feel lonelier. And then there’s the more prosaic fact that, when you scroll on your social media feeds, it’s easy to think that everyone’s more popular than you, that everyone has more friends than you, that everyone has more likes, that everyone has more retweets. 

And that speaks to the question you asked earlier: Is this in part a perception thing, this relative sense of I’m less popular. I have fewer friends than others? And then, of course, social media being actively designed, as we now know, to be so addictive that it actually keeps us distracted from our in-person relationships. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been guilty of sitting on the sofa next to my husband, scrolling on my phone, and he’ll say something, and I might not even hear him because I’m so absorbed! There was an experiment done where they put smartphones on tables between couples, and even when the smartphone was turned off, and even when neither was touching it, the couple felt less connected to each other and less empathetic.

Because they were sitting there wondering what they were missing on their smartphones while they were trying to interface with each other! I do wonder whether or not, again, some of this is the information transparency that these things provide. Even being able to say what you just said—X number of people on Facebook report abuse or X number of people on social media report bullying—we wouldn’t have been able to say the same things about the 1950s, because there would have been no real way to collect data about how many kids were feeling bullied, or how many girls were feeling harassed. And then there’s the visual part of it: we’re hyper-aware because we can see it, or we can hear it, or we can read the text. Are we just more highly attuned to what used to be prevalent but invisible? 

NH: In social sciences, I think this is often a challenge. And actually, I’m digging into the data and establishing whether there are causal links or whether this is due to different reporting, et cetera. But I think a couple of landmark studies in recent years help really make clear that social media is making people lonelier. The first was a very big study done at Stanford University in 2019, a real gold standard of a study: 1,500 in the control group were told to use Facebook as usual, and 1,500 were told to stop using Facebook for two months. What they found was very unambiguous. The group that stopped using Facebook spent significantly more time doing things in person with friends and family. It wasn’t that they just went and did things on other websites. They did much more in person, and they felt significantly happier and significantly less lonely. So that was an example where people actually changed their behavior. And that study has now been replicated by researchers using different platforms, and with consistent results, where people are finding that actually stopping using these platforms is making people feel less lonely.

Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the founder of the Progress Network. His next book, Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power, will be published by Penguin Press in May 2021.