Forty year old Joyce Vincent had been lying dead in her London apartment for two straight years before the badly decomposed body was discovered by her landlord in April 2006. The story, quietly tucked away in British newspapers, profoundly upset readers around the world who saw her isolation as a failing of modern communities. As one outraged blogger put it, Two years. She lay there. Alone, dead, unnoticed, and unmissed. How is it possible that in a city of about seven million, not one person noticed that a neighbor, sister, cousin or friend was missing?
How, indeed: in an era of advanced communication technologies in which loved ones can be reached with a few clicks of a mouse or dial of a phone, it seems implausible that the number of solitary deaths have been on the rise in countries like the UK and Japan in recent years. Alienation, dubbed the great emotional sickness of our era by Italian filmmaker Michaelangelo Antonioni, remains a disease that even email, cell phones and online networking has been powerless to remedy. These days, some experts are even suggesting that our social bonds may be breaking down not in spite of these new technologies, but because of it.
A decade ago, when many North Americans were still just starting to go online, Apple, AT&T, Hewlett Packard and Intel funded a research project by Washington University to study the psychological and social effects of using the Internet. While most first-time users went online for social purposes, the studies showed a rapid decline in participation for social activities beyond the net and increases in depression and loneliness. While magazines like Fortune and BusinessWeek boasted the virtues of interactive sites such as MySpace and YouTube, most internet users were found to be joining fewer clubs, talking less in-person and hanging out with friends less often. While new tools were allowing people to network faster than ever, studies around the world have pointed to the shrinking social circles of tech-savvy consumers. A June 2006 study by Duke University concluded that the average American today only has two close confidants, while SwissCom Inc. found that 80 percent of all cell phone conversations took place with only four people.
Some critics have rebuffed the suggestion that technology has eroded traditional human bonds, noting that the interaction is simply taking place in different forms. What it’s really doing is shifting the means of socializing, says Barry Wellman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto. In other words, the seemingly quiet and withdrawn teenager at family dinners could in fact be a witty conversationalist in online forums. This didn’t necessarily make her anti-social; it was simply a different mode of communication. While heavy internet users were spending less time with family and friends offline, they were keeping more regular contact through cell phone calls and email. The Internet has moreover been a godsend for some people who lacked opportunities for human contact, such as the elderly and disabled. Vilify it though we may, technology has so far played an invaluable role in keeping people integrated.
In themselves, email and cell phones are only a small part of the broader causes of loneliness in modern society. What these tools have done, however, is fundamentally change the nature of our communication with other people. While our new tools grant us the convenience of talking from a distance over a screen, they also exempt us from the intimacy that comes with face-to-face communication. The subtle nuances of facial expressions and body language are lost, and in return, we are spared the awkwardness and inconveniences of in-person meetings.
There is something trying, even exhausting, about human interactions, writes Laura Pappano in her book, The Connection Gap. Why meet when you can e-mail? And digital video makes it seem like you’re there. Right? While interviewing a terminally ill woman who chatted online to escape loneliness, however, Pappano discovered that the woman gradually grew cynical of the superficial interactions with her friends’ to them, she was merely a name on a screen, disembodied from her cancer and the world around her. They didn’t perceive the pain in her eyes or voice as she communicated with them. Her life and death had no impact on their conscience.
I don’t want useless sounds. I want to select them, complains Monica Vitti’s character in Antonioni’s 1964 film, La Notte. In today’s age of virtual communication, it has become all too easy for people to select and filter out the voices they don’t want to hear. It’s a world in which voices of isolated, impoverished individuals like Joyce Vincent all too easily lose their place. In the last hour before her death, Vincent surrounded herself with unopened Christmas presents and drowned out the silence with sounds from her TV set a parting reminder to herself, perhaps, that she was still connected to a society that had long forgotten about her.