Ayn Rand's tragically ambitious hero Peter Keating left his office late at night. "He walked down the street, glowing with a comfortable, undignified feeling, as though after a good meal. Then the realization of his loneliness struck him suddenly. He had to share this with someone tonight. He had no one. For the first time he wished his mother was in New York".
This was 1925. Today, to mitigate that feeling, Peter need only flip out his phone and send an iMessage; he can video-call while walking down Fifth Avenue; he can take a picture of the deserted city, and send it straight to his mom's email account for her to behold and enjoy. It would alleviate that nagging pain. Today Peter could walk down the street with the smile on his face illuminated by the radiant glow of the touch screen, instant messaging with his dearly beloved, asking her about dinner next week and does she still have time to give him a Salsa lesson or two?
But is technology a cure for loneliness or is it only a temporary treatment of its symptoms? After all, the human condition remains practically unchanged: in 2012, just like in 1925, loneliness is wont to engulf the soul, descend upon it from without and squeeze lightly, pulsating, reminding us where our loved ones are or, rather, where we are not. The difference now is that we have technology - smartphones, computers, TV shows, blockbusters - to distract us from that anguish.
Our dependency on technology is certainly a method of dealing with those timeless pangs. We watch a stand-up routine on Youtube to make us laugh the sorrow away, to force it to leave the stage by confusing it. We need action thrillers to have a world to dive into other than our own, one in which the hero's tenacity of purpose trumps our trivial problems. We yearn to hear our loved one's voices to stir emotion, any emotion - to distract us from that emptiness which sometimes rears its ugly head.
Sure, technology gives us the ability to communicate over long distances in ways unimagined in the history of humanity. But can the bond over Facebook messages or Skype compete with the comforting gaze of a loved one at the dinner table? Does the soul not bear witness to the trickery presented by video chat? I dare say it does. After a video call ends, we lack the social nourishment and encouragement that are so important to our mental wellbeing; we remain to wallow in our loneliness until work the next day or until we can distract ourselves with something else.
We depend on technology today more than ever; we say we need the weather reports, the constant stock ticks, the minute-by-minute email updates every moment of every day, even as we walk down the street or play with our kids at the beach. So what is technology actually doing? There must be a reason Skype and Facebook have become such popular means for staying in touch. I believe our dependency on technology contributes in part to an image of busyness, an image too many of us strive to create, one we flaunt with pride in the faces of our friends. Our miniscule portable devices which connect us to the rest of the world allow us to maintain that level of busyness while remaining in touch, virtually at least, with those who matter to us, and thereby assuage feelings of solitude.
I don't want it to sound like there was a time when souls did not weep and the river of loneliness was allowed to run dry; when sons, at war or exile, did not miss their mothers in faraway lands; when lovers did not send each other letters full of love and despair. My point is, however, that today, our exile is self-imposed and therefore, too, our loneliness. Whereas in earlier times men would be sent away at times of war or for criticizing the king's preponderant belly, now, in these interconnected, globalized times, we are inclined to pursue our ambitions elsewhere, in far off metropolises with bright neon signs and unfulfilled promises, leaving our close ones in our wake. As we migrate in search for jobs and opportunities, we find ourselves telling old friends how we are always 'busy, busy, busy, you know?' This busyness, in turn, plays its own role: in those rare moments when our mind exhales from its quotidian decrepitude and wakes us up to the inadequacies of metropolitan life, our surrender to ambition, to a goal in the distant future distracts us from the pangs of loneliness that come by on the road to it.
All too often, I see families sat at a breakfast table all looking into their smartphones or watching videos on their iPads. I see two young people on a date in a stylish restaurant engrossed, through the Facebook application, in the events of the world without. I see a daughter on her phone, nodding robotically while her mother talks and gesticulates, in a futile effort to get her attention. Technology in some ways has become detrimental to developing bonds - bonds that serve as fond memories when loneliness comes around knocking. As we get busier and busier, moments like these, which give us the opportunity to nourish our souls by developing stronger bonds with those around us, grow rarer. When they do happen, we are less engrossed. Many of us are now armed with an obsession to check our phones every few minutes, to make sure we are not missing out on anything other people are doing. In this way, we relegate the bonding experience we could be having to the background and bring the events of the outside world to the foreground. Maybe this is why we feel so damn lonely sometimes.
I propose a small step in the right direction: instead of making sure everyone in the virtual world knows how much fun we are having, we should share the joy of the moment with the person near us in the physical world. When we are having dinner or lunch with our families or our close friends, we ought to put all the phones in the middle in a neat pile, cover them with a napkin and let the world wait while we tend to the most basic of human social needs.
It is wrong to be against technology. There is no doubt that it should be embraced for its many comforts and the progress it brings. I only ask that we be aware when technology intrudes on those most valuable moments of our ephemeral existence, for it is the detritus of those memories, not the Facebook statuses or the emails, which cushion the pain of a yearning soul.