Book Review: “The Lonely Century”

Noreena Hertz’s new work explores a defining characteristic of our times

Book Review: “The Lonely Century”

Loneliness was already a problem before Covid-19. It had become common to eat lunch alone and “al desko.” Emails between colleagues only a few offices away kept us (and them) isolated. Dating apps meant less time at bars or out with friends and acquaintances. High-end televisions and streaming services kept us from going to the movie theaters. Massive digital music collections made going to a club or concert — or a friend’s house to listen to some tunes — unnecessary. Smartphones kept us face down and distracted at tables, in crowds, and in nature. Personalized everything made community optional.

We were already well inside our individual realities.

What was once a peripatetic world full of people from all walks of life rubbing elbows, exchanging glances, and swapping stories had gradually stilled, becoming by increments more sterile and chilled.

Covid-19 took away most of whatever heat and interactions remained.

Noreena Hertz’s new book, “The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart,” summarizes scads of research into the causes and effects of social isolation, and touches on how Covid quarantines have exacerbated the existing and growing problems already affecting us. Some of the methods of coping surprise. Hertz tells stories of “rent-a-friend” and “rent-a-family” services. In Japan, elders will shoplift repeatedly so they can go back to prison, where their friends are. Meanwhile, people of all ages have lost or never gained the social skills to navigate basic face-to-face interactions, read body language, and effectively negotiate social niceties.

“The Lonely Century” strikes me as an important book. Insights from this book are in line with a broader thrust of thinking bringing these concepts forward in a manner that may lead us to reshape capitalism, change business strategies, and focus more on human well-being than on neo-liberal ideals and “me, me, me.”

“The Lonely Century” is noteworthy for how well Hertz straddles the line between breezy non-fiction and academic treatise. The book is very readable, and then is followed by a nearly 100-page bibliography. The mix caught me betwixt and between reading and highlighting, so I resorted to my least favorite technique to remember important places — dog-earing pages.

The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World that's Pulling Apart

I try hard — and not too successfully — to discern root causes, and am beginning to believe that loneliness and alienation may explain most of our social and political dysfunction. We’ve all seen how disagreements that seem significant and fiery online can fizzle into nothingness when people are face-to-face. But in our lonely, divided, and fragmented digital selves, we dish enmity and approval with abandon, and a perceived immunity can make us reckless.

Hertz defines loneliness broadly — as a subjective state of mind and a collective stage of being. She believes it’s been driven by neo-liberalism (or Social Darwinism, or dog-eat-dog living), which makes us feel disposable and empty. Neo-liberalism has been institutionalized in various ways — in society, government, politics, and technology. Social media has fooled us into thinking we’re connected, but more of us are feeling carved off and like we’re being used. We’ve become accustomed to living in a society where we don’t understand others or feel understood by them.

We’re trapped in personalized zones that barely touch, much less merge and mix.

An article in the current issue of the Atlantic discusses how technology has contributed to this, and picks up on the loneliness it engenders, quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, who marveled at the associations strengthening American life and democracy — the way people would join a cause and create a society to push an idea or mission forward. Without these, he worried about a country where each person:

. . . withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.

To give you a sense of what’s inside Hertz’s book, here are the headings on the pages I dog-eared:

  • Loneliness and the New Age of Populists
  • No One Smiles Here
  • Ruder, Curter, and Colder
  • The Splintered Self
  • How to Read a Face
  • Meaner
  • BOMP: The Belief That Others Are More Popular Than You
  • Open-Plan and Lonely
  • The Digital Takeover of the Workplace
  • Incentivizing Kindness
  • Commercialized Communities
  • Reconnecting Capitalism with Care and Compassion
  • Change the Calculus of Capitalism

Open plan offices come under scrutiny, as you might have noticed. One factor that makes these ineffective for communication and collaboration is the noise level, which can easily exceed the threshold (55 dB) at which people start to shut down. Headphones come out, and people isolate as a defense against the noise. Yet, there isn’t any privacy, making open offices some of the most isolating and least intimate spaces you could design for workers. People in these offices report feeling lonelier than those in standard offices with a mix of cubes and walls.

The book made me think about how much office life has changed, and how it has become more isolating, less interactive, and more prone to problems. Even the architecture of office buildings has become careless in this regard, with people on different floors, or divided by common spaces. Now, you can add to the list WFH schedules that further reduce opportunities to mingle.

When I was starting out, email didn’t exist in offices. You’d have to phone a colleague, or go visit them at their desk. Chasing from office to office probably helped keep some weight off, but also gave us actual face time. We always had what you might call “high-bandwidth communication” — real-time, no lag, full body language, 3-D appearance, scent (yes, it matters), gestures, and more. With email or video calls, there’s an ambient sterility to relationships, a baseline of tidy isolation. Written communications have a “pull the pin, throw it, and run” quality, as asynchrony makes us feel less susceptible to correction or contradiction in real-time. We don’t interact so much as we serve and volley, judging angles much of the time.

When it comes to our national and world political problems, Hertz quotes Hannah Arndt, a scholar of the emergence of totalitarianism, who noted that loneliness had become “an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses” in prewar Nazi Germany. Is it any surprise that a small proportion of Americans could be radicalized when they were isolated from their communities and fed misinformation via screens they had to stare at for hours on end, the lonely tedium making them akin to fish in a barrel?

All this also seems to feed a degradation of general civility and warmth in society — or, as Hertz describes it, we’re “ruder, curter, and colder” now. We don’t give or receive some normal social graces as we’ve become contactless in our shopping, dining, and drinking. There are multiple stories in the book of people who worry that they’ll re-emerge from quarantine unable to successfully interact IRL again. They feel like they’ve passed through a one-way door into isolation.

Loneliness has major health effects — it’s more harmful than smoking or obesity, by some measures. It causes stress and inflammation, and depression can lead to suicide. The stakes for solving the loneliness problem writ large are huge, as Hertz writes:

[Loneliness is] taking a huge toll on us as individuals and on society as a whole, contributing to the deaths of millions of people annually, costing the global economy billions, and posing a potent threat to tolerant and inclusive democracy.

The book is consistently eye-opening, and I think Hertz is onto a root cause for many of the psychological, social, political, and economic problems we’ve seen over the past 20 years.

Her contemplation on how to fix things calls on us to refactor national service ideas, as well as the goals of capitalism, with community, empathy, and service at the heart of any rethinking. Scott Galloway has also become a major voice in this regard, saying in December and since:

If we don’t grab each other’s hands, if we don’t show greater empathy, if we don’t start protecting people, not companies, capitalism implodes. It collapses on itself. Capitalism is not an organic state. It’s not an organic state. It has to sit on a pile of empathy.

The Atlantic article cited above also discusses much the same thing with regard to tech firms, noting that Facebook could:

. . . do more to encourage civil conversation, discourage disinformation, and reveal its own thinking about these things. But it doesn’t, because Facebook’s interests are not necessarily the same as the interests of the American public, or any democratic public.

The changing expectations around capitalism were debated just last night on the LibLicense listserv regarding Amazon’s decision to no longer provide e-books to libraries, as covered in the Washington Post. Issues like anti-trust and market power, as well as regulation, are going to gain momentum as society works to rein in corporate powerhouses like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook. In response, look for companies to do more of what Hertz calls “WeWashing” — peddling empty mantras of community, togetherness, and unity in an effort to blunt regulators’ efforts.

The shift in thinking from a “I make, I take” mindset to a “we make, we share” mindset could be huge, and may be gaining momentum, with income inequality and various social fissures looming larger than ever. The American public seems to have wearied of the endless demands and empty promises of neo-liberalism.

Strategic plans may need another look on a shorter timeframe and on a more pragmatic level.

For companies contemplating WFH solutions going forward, this book and the trends it represents may make you or your employees reconsider. Companies are more successful, and the society they exist in more stable and affluent, if there is a well-functioning community at center.

For companies using things like Slack, you may want to think hard about how this keeps people from getting up and talking with one another.

For OA advocates who have disparaged societies and professional associations — and for the plans they’ve imposed that may do major harm to such organizations, or make it impossible to start new and needed ones — the damage may be far greater and more permanent than they’ve imagined. Professional associations and societies may be exactly what we need more of, not less. How these are funded and how they further develop their communities are key questions going forward.

Issues around loneliness, isolation, and community touch a lot of things, and seem destined to inform the “next normal.”

“The Lonely Century” feels like a pivotal work in a world struggling to retain a sense of social cohesion, cultural viability, and democratic norms. Separated from our flock, we’ve become easy targets for manipulative media. Made to feel powerless, we’ve become susceptible to suggestion and distraction. Lonely and isolated, we’ve lost access to the power of our actual communities.

It’s time to come together again, and stop gazing into our glowing isolation chambers. “The Lonely Century” gives a much-needed early diagnosis of a malady we can address — together.

Highly recommend.

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