Modern technology has made loneliness a pressing issue: some experts even argue that we’re experiencing a loneliness epidemic. But the truth is that the challenges and trials associated with loneliness aren’t new.
Loneliness has always been part of our experience.
As individuals and as a society – loneliness is actually a shared experience. Certainly, feeling alone is isolating. But time after time, studies show that our loneliness is deeply related to the things happening around us: the people in our lives, the social context we live in, and the environments we exist in both at home and abroad.
Few people understood this better than Emile Durkheim.
Emile Durkheim was a French sociologist who is often considered one of the founding figures of sociology. His groundbreaking work on suicide and social integration laid the groundwork for understanding the role of social bonds in individual wellbeing. Durkheim argued that social integration, or the extent to which individuals are connected to their communities and social networks, is a crucial factor in preventing feelings of isolation and despair.
Of course, social integration has taken on new forms in the digital age. People are more connected than ever through social media, online communities, and messaging platforms. However, this hyperconnectivity has not necessarily translated into stronger social bonds. Durkheim's work tells us that it’s not just the quantity of social connections that matter but the quality and depth of these connections that matter. Put simply, we’re living in a loneliness epidemic at a time in history when we have unprecedented connection in our lives.
But friends and followers aren’t always the same thing. And they don’t occupy the same role in our social wellbeing.
Durkheim's ideas encourage us to examine the nature of these digital connections and the extent to which they truly provide the support and integration that humans need.
Durkheim also introduced the concept of anomie which he describes as a state of normlessness or a breakdown of social cohesion. Anomie arises when individuals feel disconnected from the broader society and its values, leading to feelings of purposelessness and disillusionment. In the digital age, anomie can manifest in various ways. For instance, individuals may feel adrift in a sea of online content, unable to discern a clear sense of purpose or direction. The constant exposure to carefully curated social media feeds can foster unrealistic comparisons and a sense of inadequacy, contributing to feelings of anomie. Durkheim's emphasis on the importance of shared norms and values reminds us of the need to cultivate a sense of belonging and shared purpose in the digital world.
The division of labour, another key concept in Durkheim's work, is also relevant to understanding modern loneliness. Durkheim argued that as societies evolve and become more complex, the division of labour increases. While this specialization is necessary for progress and economic development, it can lead to social fragmentation and disconnection. In the digital age, the division of labour has taken on new forms. The digital age has brought many valuable changes to the workforce: remote work has empowered folks to find better balance in their lives, and freelance work has been catalyzed through social networking platforms empowering folks to build and shape their own careers in ways that have never been possible before. But progress also comes with downsides.
Remote work means that we don’t often have those micro-interactions with the people we work with that get us through the long Friday afternoons or the tired Monday mornings. Even if team cohesion is strong in a remote work setting: the small interactions of daily life also play a role in our wellbeing – and those interactions can be hard to come by in a virtual world.
Moreover, as technology and artificial intelligence are improving it’s become possible for one person to do what several people used to do. This means that roles are becoming increasingly independent. Simultaneously, other roles are becoming more specialized as technology gets better at doing the basics. We spend less time working together as a result. This is something we really need to think about moving forward if we’re going to rekindle connection through technology.
Today, Individuals are increasingly specialized in their online roles and personas, contributing to a fragmented sense of self. The constant juggling of different online identities, from professional to personal to social, can create a sense of dissonance and isolation. Durkheim's work on the division of labour encourages us to consider the impact of these digital roles on our overall sense of self and social integration.
To address loneliness in the digital age, we can draw from Durkheim's insights and apply them to our contemporary context. First and foremost, we must prioritize the quality of our online interactions over quantity. Meaningful connections with a few close friends or family members can be more valuable than a large number of superficial online acquaintances. We should actively seek out and nurture relationships that provide genuine support and a sense of belonging.
Combating anomie in the digital age also requires a critical examination of our online behaviours and values. Are we pursuing goals and values that are truly meaningful to us, or are we simply following trends and seeking external validation? Durkheim's emphasis on shared norms and values can guide us to find a sense of purpose in the digital landscape by aligning our online activities with our personal beliefs and values.
The division of labour in the digital age calls for a more integrated approach to our online identities and workplaces. Rather than fragmenting ourselves into various roles, we should strive for authenticity and consistency in our online presence. This doesn't mean erasing all boundaries between personal and professional life, but it does mean being true to our values, individualism, and principles across the digital spectrum.
It means being co-people first and being co-workers second.
Emile Durkheim was one of the first thinkers to consider loneliness not as isolation, but actually as a shared feeling of isolation and disconnect. This distinction, alongside others, can help inform the way we think about loneliness in ourselves and others – even a hundred years or so later.
Loneliness isn’t a challenge to be faced by individuals. Durkheim suggests that loneliness is a challenge of human experience to be faced, considered and managed on a societal level. This extends through the whole of society: from policymakers, educators, and mental health professionals to technologists, builders, entrepreneurs, and media. Loneliness, unsurprisingly, isn’t solved through working in isolation. It’s solved by working in the open: in a shared intellectual, political, and technological space.
But Emile Durkheim is just one of many thinkers on loneliness. What do you think?