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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

Our Lonely Century

Featuring Noreena Hertz

What do university students in Britain and Trump voters in the United States 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.

This conversation was recorded in May 2021.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Zachary Karabell (ZK): So I’m talking today with Noreena Hertz, who is both a member of The Progress Network, which we are delighted, excited, thrilled, all sorts of thesaurus-like adverbs about, and also a professor in London, an author—and we’ll talk about the new book, [“The Lonely Century”], which is on your back left shoulder, I guess on our back right shoulder. But in case that gets drowned out by the sea of impressive erudite books behind her, it’s also right here, and right there, and right there, and then right there. So we’ll talk a bit about the book and then maybe a bit about, you know, the post-pandemic world, optimistically, that there is in fact a post-pandemic world. Although honestly, there sort of has to be a post-pandemic world or else the human race will just somehow stop in its very tracks and I don’t think that’s going to happen.

So you began this book and these questions long before a period where loneliness has become the coin of the realm. So, in a strange way, you anticipated an increase in a trend that then got hyper-charged by the pandemic. So, what led you… I guess, give me a sense of, like, who’s Noreena, and what led you into doing this, and what were the animating questions, and is this something you thought about, like, 30 years ago and then it became more acute or… I’m curious as to the pathway.

Noreena Hertz (NH): Well, it was really about four years ago that I started thinking about loneliness. And a few things happened at roughly the same time that made me get interested in it. First was my students. I was teaching at university. I’ve been teaching at university on and off for the past 20 years. And about four years ago I noticed something different going on. My students, many of them were coming into my office in office hours and confiding in me that they felt very lonely. And this was something new, that I hadn’t seen before. And there was something else I observed with my students when I was setting them group assignments. Many were struggling with in-person, face-to-face interaction, with social interaction in a way that previous generations hadn’t. And I noted it, and I thought “that’s interesting.”

At the same time, in my research, I was researching the rise of right-wing populism across the globe. So from Trump voters in the United States to Le Pen voters in France, Salvini voters in Italy, Alternative for Deutschland voters in Germany. And as I started interviewing these voters and hearing their testimonies, one thing that came out time and time again from their stories was how lonely they felt, and how they were finding community in these right-wing populist movements. Lonely in the sense of lacking friends and lacking a social network for sure, but also lonely in the sense of feeling invisible, ignored, unseen, and feeling that right-wing populist leaders were seeing them. So that was interesting to me as well.

And then, I had bought an Alexa. And I found myself becoming increasingly attached to my Alexa, which got me thinking about the fact that what I came to call “a loneliness economy” was emerging. A whole economy emerging to essentially deliver connection and, at best, community, in fact. Which signaled that there was a demand, a demand for these products, which again, signaled that there was a problem.

And because it was coming at me from these three really distinct and very different areas, I thought, “I want to dig into this whole phenomenon more, because is loneliness a way of making, helping to make sense of where the world is currently at?” And as I came to realize how widespread loneliness was, how it was affecting, in the United States, one in five Americans who were feeling lonely always or most of the time, even before the pandemic. The fact that one in five millennials said that they didn’t have a single friend. The fact that 40% of office workers were saying that they felt lonely. As I was kind of digging into the data and starting to interview people as well, I came to see loneliness as, in many ways, the defining condition of this century, and helping to explain some of these seismic political and social shifts we’ve seen, as well as being a product of them as well. And, yeah, so that was kind of how this all, how it all got going, this research.

ZK: It’s funny, you know, you talk about Alexa. I remember, our younger son got an Alexa, or got one of the devices, a few years ago. And it engendered a whole debate amongst, you know, my wife, my son, us, of “should you treat your Alexa with the manners that you treat a human being,” right? Like this whole AI question. And at one point in the book you allude to “Black Mirror,” which we can get into as a kind of emblematic moment of cultural alienation and loneliness, right? The whole show is sort of cast with a pall of disconnected humans trying to navigate their way through a dystopic technology environment. But this question of, are you supposed to interact with Alexa with the same sort of sensitivity and politeness and gratitude and appreciation that you would presumably with a friend or someone, you know, working with you? Should you say please? Should you say thank you? Should you, you know… Questions that remain asked and unresolved, which is neither here nor there, but it’s an interesting question about, like…

NH: Yes. I say please and thank you to my Alexa. For sure. Because I think this is about us practicing these skills. And I think, in the same way that the way we treat our pets speaks to the kind of people we are, I think, in a way, the way we treat our inanimate Alexas does too. Especially with children, you know, with kids who are kind of growing up in homes with Alexis, you know, are perceiving them as essentially not that distinct from, or not distinct at all, from people. I have a two-year-old niece, and my sister-in-law was telling me that the other day they were making greeting cards for family members. And she said to my niece, “who should we make a card for next?” And my niece said, “Alexa.”

ZK: That’s very… I don’t know if that’s incredibly sweet or incredibly strange or some weird combination thereof. But it’s definitely the world that not only we’re inhabiting, but it would appear is going to be increasingly, you know, ubiquitous.

NH: Yeah, and it’s for good or for ill. It’s both. I do think, you know, I think an attachment to an AI can alleviate loneliness at the personal level, for sure, and can help you feel more connected. Not all friends are the same quality in one’s real life. But it worries me, the societal implications, especially if we were to choose, of course, our friendships, with AIs over our friendships with people. Because of course they don’t demand anything of us. They don’t demand that we’re nice to them or kind to them. They don’t ask for reciprocity. So my fear is that we don’t want to be in a situation where we choose our AI over our human friends. We would lose too much as a society.

ZK: When I was reading your book—and I was thinking about this because 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?

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.

ZK: 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.

ZK: 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.

ZK: 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.

ZK: I feel like we should stop recording now. I feel like somehow we’re kind of complicit in something inadvertently. As we wrap up, I’m curious, because you do have a series of prescriptions, right? Your tenor is not “all is lost, oh well.” And I think you more than some feel there is a much more active role for government to kind of constructively shift gears, move the needle, one, in terms of how politicians talk about their community, as opposed to just their own personal electoral and/or political fortunes, right? I mean, you have a lot of stuff about the kind of “me, me, me” factor of a lot of, particularly, movements to the right. Although it’s just as true, I think, on the left, in terms of, you know, “pay attention to me and my needs.” It’s a ubiquitous collective issue. It’s not just the West. The same issues can take place even in more collective societies, East Asia. So this is a kind of a human dilemma right now. But so, tell us a little about, like, what the more constructive path forward is, because I think more than many, you have a really strong belief in, you know, “technology is not destiny,” and “the world as it is not the world as it necessarily should or will be.”

NH: For sure. And my book is full of ideas of what can be done, what governments can do, what businesses can do, and what we as individuals can do. I mean, governments, just to speak to a couple of things, one thing that is clear and is clearly part of the problem is that really ever since the 2008 and even before, but accelerating after the 2008 financial crisis, we’ve seen a steady defunding of what we might think of as an infrastructure community: public libraries, public parks, youth clubs, daycare centers, elderly daycare centers; physical spaces where people can be together and come together. And that needs to be reversed as a matter of urgency in the United States. Public libraries saw a decrease in federal funding of 40% since 2008. So, you know, we need these physical spaces where people can be together. So that’s kind of one pretty easy fix.

ZK: I like that phrase. “Infrastructure Of community” is a really nice articulation of it.

NH: Thank you. I think another thing government can do and is really needed now is think about how it can best support our local Main Streets. You know, our local cafes, our local stores, our local studios that are all on their knees thanks to this past year. And yet, these are brick and mortar spaces that, again, play a really important role in nurturing and anchoring our communities. And whether that is around particular tax status—I talk about in my book a kind of new tax status, pro-community businesses, which should get favorable tax statuses, whether it’s mirroring initiatives like we’ve seen elsewhere in the world… In Belgium, for example, they have what’s called an “empty shop tax” to disincentivize landlords from keeping shops empty for protracted periods waiting out the higher rents. They have a kind of rising tax the longer they do so.

So there’s a whole host of whether it’s kind of particularly favorable—leveling the playing field, of course, with e-commerce e-tailers—a whole host of measures governments can catch at local levels. So perhaps at federal levels around reinvigorating our Main Streets, I think is really important, crucial as well. And there’s much more governments can do. But also, there is a role for the market here as well. This isn’t all about the State by any means. There are things that it needs to do, but isn’t all about the State. I do think there’s an opportunity here for innovation and for entrepreneurship when it comes to designing and delivering products that can alleviate loneliness and at best deliver community. There’s a lovely example in South Korea of these daytime discos for elderly people, where thousands of elderly people, dance by day in these daytime discos. And it’s a commercial initiative, but the prices is kept very low. Entry costs are low because they’re operating at scale. They’re able to do so providing a brilliant service for people and also business opportunity.

And of course we saw in all of the pandemic a real rise in appetite for these shared, collective experiences. Whether it was a rise in people attending music festivals or going to escape rooms or coming to coffee together. And of course during pandemic, much of this has shifted online, but I believe that post… As soon as people feel safe again, we are going to see a huge pent-up demand for these physical, in-person shared experiences, which provides a business opportunity. And of course there’s a technological opportunity as well. Whilst I’ve kind of said, you know, I worry about the societal ramifications, I can also see that there is a role and will be a role for social robots, for example, helping with elderly care. There was an Israeli startup which makes a robot, ElliQ, and shipped thousands of them to elderly retirees in Florida during the pandemic, and the testimonies were very moving. People saying, you know, “I would have felt so lonely had I not had my ElliQ with me.”

So I think there’s a role for technology there. But of course, there’s also a role for us. It’s also to do with the choices we make about how we lead our lives. It’s partly about recognizing that there are trade-offs sometimes that we will need to make, between convenience and community, between even at times, freedom and fraternity, if we want to feel more connected to each other. But also things that we can do in a tangible way. We can try and put our phones down more, although recognizing how addictive they are, which is why I do think there’s a role for government there, for sure, regulating social media companies more. But we can try, I try and put my phone in a basket in the evening so that it’s not actually in arms reach. Because when it’s in arms reach my arm goes there.

We can consciously nurture our own neighborhood some more, especially now, consciously support our local bookshops, our local cafes, our local stores because you know, those micro-exchanges we have in those shops, making a 30-second chat with the barista—”Hello, how are you”—at our grocery store, those are moments that make us feel much more connected to each other, and we need them.

And also, I think right now, given how lonely people are feeling—in the United States around 50% of people are currently saying that they feel lonely—think about whether there’s anyone in your own network who might be feeling lonely. And if there is, reach out to them, even just send them a text saying, “thinking of you” when they spring to mind. Or if you can, meet up with them in a socially distanced way, or pick up the phone, because just showing someone that you’re thinking about them, that you see them, that they’re in your mind, can make a huge difference to how they feel.

ZK: Well, amen to that. Anyway, it’s a great book, but of course you are more than the sum of your recent book. So, you know, there’s good work to come, and good work before, so, you know, you are, I think, a doer worth following and listening to. And it’s been great listening to you and talking with you for a half an hour in pandemic land. Hopefully “The Lonely Century,” which I know you believe, is descriptive and not prescriptive. And that it will not be a book that you would need to write a second edition of in 10 years, but that’s definitely an aspiration that I know that you are totally dedicated to making sure is true. And that the future is not a sorry replication of the past, or at least of the recent past. So thank you for your work. Thanks for joining The Progress Network. Keep going. I’m sure we’ll continue to have these conversations. At least I hope we continue to have these conversations. And it’s been great today. So again, go ahead and read [“The Lonely Century”].

NH: Thank you. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure coming on and I’m delighted to be part of the network.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell


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