It is a fact that modern day human beings are among the loneliest in the history of homo sapiens. But during a time when all our friends are connected to us within the reach of a finger, how is this a thing?
They say globalisation and the internet revolution has turned the world into a global village. But has it?
We live in a village yet confine ourselves in 1-person bubbles (a phenomenon which has got worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic). We have more connections than ever before, yet struggle to find a single friend to lean onto in times of desperation.
Human beings aren’t designed to handle more than 150 stable social relationships at the same time. This number was possibly at its peak when we lived in small tribal village communities in mechanical solidarity (as Émile Durkheim would say).
Back then we had limited connections. But all connections ran deep.
Bonds were forged in blood.
Fast forward to the 21st century, one would be lucky to have 5 authentic human relationships that run as deep. But the number of connections have multiplied into 1000s. Is this owing to the general trend of individualism taking over our lives, an impact of internet-age social dynamics, a side-effect of fast-paced lifestyles or a combination of all the above?
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What does the future hold for us?
Humans are not global species. They are tribal; they thrive in small close-knit communities, not in large loosely-acquainted universes.
Is the way to solve this problem creation of more optimised virtual experiences?
Is it creating more “authentic” social media platforms that will re-ignite a sense of true connection with our friends?
Is it a worthy goal to have AI companions replace the need for human companionship and VR to replace the need for physical human contact?
I think a good analogy to rethink this is to consider fake meat vs real meat, which is a topic of contention among health & nutrition enthusiasts. But most of these fitness promoters fail to understand that the purpose of fake meat is not to be a nutritional replacement for real meat. It is to provide a solution to current meat eaters who wish to go vegan without giving up on the taste of real meat. That’s it.
Fake meat solves a taste problem for current meat-eaters who wish to turn vegan. This is a minority of meat-eaters (most meat-eaters who want to go vegan won’t mind sacrificing meat-like-taste as part of the deal.).
And that’s okay because it’s an optional shift; real meat lovers still have a solution for their taste buds and protein needs.
Similarly while the concept of AI companionship and VR as a replacement for physical human contact may fit the needs of a minority who want that. The majority of 21st century human beings who experience modern-day effects of loneliness and lack of deep meaningful relationships don’t have a solution built for them.
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Who is looking out for them? Certainly not tech companies.
These humans don’t have a way to create new connections and to build new meaningful relationships outside of the virtual space flooded by apps, unless they already have requisite skills to do so.
When I say requisite skills, I mean not just the ability to socialise and meet new people. But also the ability to have meaningful, vulnerable and often hard conversations with them. Because it is only by letting each other’s innermost scars be seen that we forge deep relationships; not through superficial banter and bar-hopping.
Constant use of low-effort communication mediums like text have removed the need for any meaningful time and energy investment while speaking with someone. How does it feel when you’re crying your heart out about a family member’s death and can clearly sense that you don’t have the full attention of the person on the other end of the phone?
How does it feel when you’re sharing a personal story but the other person can’t wait to tell how their story’s even funnier/scarier/weirder/crazier? Is this phenomenon of constant one-upmanship in conversation a side-effect of the status games we play on social media?
One can speculate.
Then are we as a species doomed for a future of inauthentic human connection? Is the only way to remedy this to an extent, hopping on whatever is the most advanced social media platform or latest dating app? Or is it buying an AI companion to fill these gaps in our lives?
Are we limited to the social circles we’re part of purely by chance (from school/college/work), despite the world being an open playground with over 7 billion people?
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I’d like to think otherwise.
Authentic human connections can’t be engineered with technology. Neither can they be replaced.
Human connections can only be provided the right circumstances to blossom. These connections may or may not evolve into something substantial.
But if most of us spend enough time under such circumstances with a randomised sample of other humans, eventually serendipity will cause bonds to be forged with some of them.
These circumstances can however be engineered in the real physical world. I may have a solution that allows for that.
In the future, we may eventually get back to a place where all of us could if we chose to, have 150 meaningful authentic relationships each.
Wouldn’t that be something to look forward to?