Don’t sell me your dream

Far from liberating us, technology isolates us and makes us stupid. I want no part of your sterile,

Ever since Hobbes, man has been using his ingenuity and energy in an attempt to ­create a technological utopia. Perpetually dissatisfied with the present, we have invented spinning jennies, steam power, canals, railways, motor cars, flying machines, the wireless, tele­vision, computers, mobile telephones. We have been taught in schools since the late 18th century, and by the culture at large, to revere technology and to place faith in it as a liberator. Soon, soon, it seems to say, soon you will be free.

I have a different view. I hold in supreme contempt 90 per cent of modern technology. The whole sorry shebang is actually a costly distraction, which isolates us, makes us stupid and is never going to free us.

Take that digital manacle, the BlackBerry. My first objection to this bleeping distraction is its name. To me, the blackberry is the fruit of the bramble, best picked in September and made into a crumble. It is not a portable telephone and emailing device. It is a strange fact, by the way, that new technology loves to appropriate words from nature. Orange, Apple, Twitter, Amazon, Safari and O2: all companies or products that in fact separate us from messy nature.

But back to the infernal BlackBerry. You are with a friend and you notice that her attention starts wandering. She is writing an email! Surely that is just plain rude. It is also a clever way for your employer to be able to call on you at all times.

Far from making good on its promise to release information to the people, technology makes us into stupid slaves with the concentration span of a two-year-old. No longer can we read drama or poetry; information has to be condensed into bite-sized PowerPoint chunks. Instead of bicycling to the library and getting down three books to help us in our research, we remain in our chairs and lazily consult that dubious, low-quality oracle, Wikipedia, which ensures that not only does the whole world get the same answer, but also that it is a very poor one.

It is also important to remember that technology is not altruistic. Facebook and MySpace are ad sales scams. They get free content and demographic data from their members, then sell it to advertisers. And technology is not neutral: it is one manifestation of a certain sort of techno-utopian world-view, which Aldous Huxley, writing The Perennial Philosophy (1946), described as follows:

"Salvation is regarded as a deliverance . . . out of the miseries and evils associated with bad material conditions into another set of future material conditions so much better than the present that . . . they will cause everybody to be perfectly happy, wise, virtuous. It is drummed into the popular mind, not by the representatives of state or church, but by those most influential of popular moralists and philosophers, the writers of advertising copy."

Technology, like most capitalist constructs, advertising included, appeals to our self-importance (“because you’re worth it”). The mobile phone makes you feel like someone. Witness also the “i” that has been so successful for Apple. In a world where many of us have little control over our work lives, technology makes us feel important. And the BlackBerry promises to make us even more busy and important. A recent advertising campaign showed an unsmiling Teutonic supermodel under the legend “Superhuman”. The ad implied that the purchase of a BlackBerry would transform a mere mortal into something altogether superior. It’s the same with the dreadful Twitter. No longer are you a corporate slave in your cubicle: now you are a coffee-house wit. When I interviewed the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland in 1994, he was already complaining about how the internet was helping all those “wannabe Oscar Wildes just waiting to spew their bons mots into the ether”.

Technology is in the business of selling dreams. And the most influential peddlers of these dreams are the Californian futurologists who, rather in the same manner as naive utopians such as H G Wells before them, are still hoping for jetpacks, eternal life and libertarian communes on ships floating in the Pacific Ocean.

The brilliant investor and hedge-fund manager Peter Thiel is one such character. He was he first backer of Facebook and before that co-founded PayPal, but also believes in a piece of Californian mumbo-jumbo called “The Singularity”. This is the idea that soon computers will become cleverer than humans. He is also a fan of life-extension research, and gives money to an English scientist called Aubrey de Grey, who believes that technology will help us to live to be a thousand years old.

The great myth is that some time soon there will be a technological breakthrough that will lead us to the promised land. But, of course, this will never happen, as Huxley pointed out:

"Because technology advances, we fancy that we are making corresponding progress all along the line; because we have considerable power over inanimate nature, we are convinced that we are the self-sufficient masters of our souls; and because cleverness has given us technology and power, we believe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that we have only to go on being yet cleverer in a yet more systematic way to achieve social order, international peace and personal happiness."

Brave New World (1932), Huxley’s eerily prophetic novel, was conceived as a riposte to H G Wells’s faith in technology. Huxley’s intention was to warn where we might be heading if we continued to chase the technodream. In Brave New World there are no books: Shakespeare and Keats are banned because they disturb people. “Everyone’s happy now,” boasts the Controller, Mustapha Mond. Instead of art and truth and beauty, the brave new world gives its people comfort and happiness. They have as much sex as they like, and when life gets difficult they take the tranquillising drug soma. This is a result of man becoming too clever for his own good: a sterile, antiseptic, bloodless paradise.

But we are already part of the way there. Instead of buying books, schools buy computers, forgetting that most households have a computer but not many books. The computers will also go out of date very quickly, creating piles of landfill. Nothing dates so fast as technology.

On a severely practical level, technology is hugely frustrating. It doesn’t work very well. It breaks. It suddenly starts going slow. The gap ­between the elevated promise of the gadget and the messy reality can lead to bursts of techno-rage. But not working is good for business: when existing technology lets you down, just upgrade.

It’s a strange fact that the more you cast this stuff off, the freer you feel. It is a treat to be without a mobile phone or computer or television. Try it for a day – you suddenly realise how much in thrall to this stuff you have been, a slave to the things that promise to free you, but never do.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood