The New Empirical Loneliness

As many of us already realize, the reality in which we live today is often based on empirical representations of it. How many Facebook friends or Twitter followers does one have? Who are the top billionaires on the Forbes list? What are the standardized test scores representing how well students are learning or how well their schools are teaching them? What books can be found on the New York Times bestseller list? Of course, these type of empirical evaluations have always been with us. Yet now, they appear to be rapidly reaching the point where they not only augment a certain validation of popularity or success. Rather, now these quantitative determinants of success are becoming sole measures of it.

One result of this trend toward empiricism may be that as our world grows more outer-directed, and less inner-directed, people’s personas are in danger of growing more soulless and devoid of the richness which one’s inner experience may offer as the validity of that inner world is increasingly fused with the outer world of empirical success. While another result of this turning away from inner-directed existence may be how so many people are traversing the course of their lives by staring obsessively into the plastic screen of their phones, in lieu of apprehending the richness of human experience that is transpiring all around them.

However, there appears to be something else taking place which may be even more insidious. This is the isolation and loneliness which many people feel who have been somehow abandoned by the empirical validations of success which they can see others not only garnering, but in so doing enhancing their sense of self-worth. That is, when one can see other people who don’t appear to be all that significant in whatever endeavors they are pursuing with tens of thousands of followers on Twitter while one has less than a hundred, it seems logical that increasing feelings of isolation might result.

As Martin Scorsese’s iconic movie Taxi Driver made clear in revealing the isolated, lonely person who ultimately grows violent in the form of a Manhattan taxi driver played by Robert DeNiro in one of his more memorable roles, a feeling of isolation from the success that others enjoy, as when DeNiro stares despondently at his television screen while watching happy couples dance on American Bandstand, is a classic breeding ground for a stifling loneliness. So the question would seem to present itself: Might the viewing of success through a largely empirical lens that is currently taking place in our society be a corollary for a new type of loneliness?

The Internet has played a significant role in exposing the details of people’s lives that in a previous time were generally kept private. Personal relationships, private conduct, and monetary status have now all become fair game for how we might become exposed to others online. Indeed, with the Internet increasingly turning into a new reality for many people, this growing lack of privacy related to personal identity is becoming rapidly institutionalized. And as the quality of who we are as individuals becomes increasingly represented by the details of our lives inside a plastic screen, numerical evaluations of us are rapidly becoming the new normal; compared to how people might have been previously represented to others in ways which were less limiting and more fair simply because they were more anecdotal. And so they provided us with a broader, more complex view of who we are as human beings.

Yet when the number of followers on social media becomes an indication of one’s popularity and one’s worth; when standardized test scores become a primary test of one’s intelligence and one’s capacity to learn; and when the amount of individual wealth someone enjoys is presented to others in starkly numerical terms, as a result any number of people might easily begin to feel defined and even trapped by these sort of numerical evaluations. Consequently, it becomes exponentially easier for a stifling isolation and loneliness to rear its ugly head.

Now that we are all now more exposed to each other in this new digital age, the danger of comparing ourselves to others and in so doing to be found wanting has increased significantly simply because of how we are habitually made aware of the success of others in highly specific terms, and by how we are being conditioned to view our own comparative self-worth in purely numerical ways; and by the essentially rigid nature of digital algorithms and coding into which even our own thought processes are being increasingly assimilated.

Indeed, numerical representations of real-life situations, algorithms, and digital code have become by and large the language of our Internet age. And although these things may simplify our world for us as they allow us to search more expeditiously for information or to connect more easily with others, if over time they come to represent our humanity, we may find ourselves in a world of trouble.