Digital Depression and Lonely Masses
Our society is evolving at a record pace towards a digital cosmos – a society in which life is largely digital. In the digital society of the future – in some respects, the near future – people work, party, play and make love online, and even eat digitally printed food.
The latest developments in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are slowly preparing us to go even further. Not only are we replacing human interactions with digital ones; we are replacing humanity itself. The doctor, the teacher, the coach, the psychologist, and so on – they can all be replaced by a computer.
Is there a difference between a real and a digital conversation? Is there a difference between a conversation with a human being and a conversation with a sophisticated computer? I have spent fifteen years conducting research into (real) conversations between therapists and patients. It has shown me how subtle and sublime real conversations are. To give just one example: if one person stops talking, the other will typically take over in fewer than 0.2 seconds – even if the first person stops speaking in the middle of a sentence. By way of comparison: in traffic, the reaction time is approximately one second (so five times longer).
In real conversations, people's bodies constantly resonate with each other. The facial and body muscles of the listener contract in the same way as those of the speaker, and the same areas of the brain are activated. When people speak with each other, they form a supra-organism on a psychic and subtle-physical level. They are connected by a psychic membrane that imperceptibly transmits the most subtle emotions from one person to another. In this way a kind of spontaneous empathy occurs in the interlocutor (unless the ego structure is extremely developed, as in psychopathy).
Every (real) conversation thus satisfies the first and foremost primal need of man – resonance with the Other. In a digital conversation, this resonance is compromised, due to the limitations of technology: small delays in the signal transmission, restrictions on the freedom of perspective, seeing the other person only partially, and so on. Precisely because of this, long-term digital communication often leaves us with a dull and exhausted feeling. Our bodies exhaust themselves in fruitless and constant attempts to connect with the body of the other person – a phenomenon that some refer to digital depression. It remains to be seen whether replacing a real psychologist with an AI version will provide an effective therapy for that kind of digital depression.
The gradual replacement of real social situations by artificial ones in recent centuries and decades – through the industrialization and mechanization of labor, through the introduction of radio, television, telephone and internet – has taken an insidious toll. It is responsible for the most destructive psychosocial phenomenon of the Enlightenment: it "atomizes" the human being, disconnecting us from our social and natural environment and plunging us into solitude.
Loneliness reached a peak in the early 21st century. Studies from immediately prior to the corona crisis report as much as 40% of the world's population feeling lonely. The situation has become so dire that in 2018, former British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a Minister of Loneliness. Much more recently, in the United States, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the dangers of loneliness combined with a new “National Strategy to Advance Social Connection.” But we don't need to resort to statistics to feel the seriousness of the problem. Get on the train – hardly any words are exchanged between people anymore. Our minds are tethered to a tiny screen – digital connection has replaced the human bond. If you casually greet a passer-by – a once-obvious way of affirming the human bond with no other intention – you will immediately sense the problem and, possibly, an unpleasant reaction in return (an unspoken question of: “What does this idiot want of me?”).
Loneliness and atomization is not just a problem, it is a problem with enormous social consequence. Isolated, atomized subjects tend, especially under the influence of media and social media narratives, to suddenly coalesce into a new kind of group: a mass. This kind of group formation makes people radically incapable of thinking critically about the stories presented to them, willing to radically sacrifice everything they hold dear, and deeply intolerant of any voice that deviates of what the masses believe in.
The masses of yesteryear (i.e. the crusades, the witch hunts, etc.) were physical masses – the masses consisted of a group of people physically coming together. The current masses, on the other hand, consist of individuals who, each in digital solitude, are infused by the mass media with similar representations and stories. It is this lonely mass that, together with its leaders, forms the backbone of the ultimate symptom of our rationalistic society: the totalitarian state. The big question we have to answer as a culture is therefore this: what can transform the lonely masses into a society in the true sense of the word – a group of people connected from person to person; where the collective does not destroy the individual, but guarantees a space in which it can flourish as a singular being.