It is time for us to introduce the idea of Schrodinger’s Loneliness. Because one of the biggest threats and promises of digitally-networked lives is loneliness. When you are online, you are connected and alone at the same time. Technology utopias are premised on the idea that greater connectivity will lead to greater collectivity, and time and again, they have been proven right. New forms of socially mediated communication and technologies have led to the formation of unprecedented communities and networks at personal and global scales. For voices, identities, and bodies who were always silenced, discriminated against or punished, the digital web has found a space of respite, of belonging, and of organising. We have witnessed more acts of speaking up, calling out, and resistance across the globe as old voices find new channels of communication and find solidarity in their coming together.
Technology dystopias, simultaneously, have also painted terrifying pictures of human loneliness amplified by the digital isolation that often gets celebrated as personalisation. Stories emerge of people being bullied, silenced, and excluded from the digital webs, often ending in fatal consequences as the final promise of the web as an emancipatory space fails. The Black Mirror-like predictions show that under the aegis of anonymous action and alienated interaction, some of the darkest and most depraved human actions and fantasies emerge. We have now seen that those who cannot bear the burden of the digital lightness of being often find themselves burdened under the heavy cloaks of loneliness. And this loneliness often gets exacerbated because so many of our digital interactions which give the impression of connection, are actually transactions supported and fueled by shallow, illusionary intimacy.
Even as the UK last month announced the appointment of Minister of Loneliness, which sounds more like the title of the next Arundhati Roy novel, it is worth examining why we are so alone in the age of hyperconnectivity. In his provocative science fiction series called the Three Body Problem, Chinese author Cixin Liu had proposed a sociology for the cosmic worlds. Liu suggested that the universe is such a dark space of competing resources that loneliness — the hiding from others, and not letting them know that you exist — is a primary survival instinct. To connect is to bear the risk of attack, infection, and annihilation.
Liu’s science fiction proposition might only bear corroboration at the moment of extra terrestrial interaction in some unforeseen future, but it does open up an interesting proposition: When we choose to be alone and celebrate loneliness as our default. It is an indication not just of a personal choice or problem but a symptom of the fact that increasingly we are building hostile and dark societies where the best survival option is to disconnect. Perhaps, the digital solitude that we seek and the networked loneliness that we seem to be sliding into, is not just about the temptations and seductions of living with algorithms and interfacing with virtual reality. Maybe, it is also a sign that the digital worlds that we are building are a response to the increasingly difficult universes that we live in.
Despite the emergence of the global web and the promises of equity, equality, fairness, and justice that have long been mounted on technologisation, we do witness a world where the predators and hunters far outnumber the hunted. While digital networks have brought out a fascinating possibility of organised solidarity, they have also created alarming expressions of anger, hatred and xenophobia around the world. In the supreme moment of fake truth politics enabled by the filter bubbles of manipulative algorithms owned by profiteering companies and governments, the world seems to be balanced on the sine curve of a silicon chip. Across the world, we see the rise of fascist governments and expressions of hatred, where people are lynched to death by power hungry vigilantes, and communities are dislocated by resource-hunting corporations. Global populations are experiencing poverty, hunger, and an erosion of foundational human rights even as they get unfettered access to digital technologies. As IT companies surpass the economic and political strengths of nation states, we see new violations and new strategies of manipulation without accountability and safeguards.
The rise of the digital has not just been the moment of resistance, it has been a coup. The world as we know it has not only changed, but it has been replaced, and in this new version of the rebooted world, the user is perhaps the most disenfranchised and precarious. It is not really a wonder that being disconnected might be the last chance for survival.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.