There was an interesting idea around social media a while back, that it would solve loneliness. Ironically, the opposite has happened. And yet new social media apps and platforms say they’ve “solved for that” and their new features will bring everyone together. Yet research shows technology hasn’t solved for loneliness. It likely won’t. Why?
As Zuckerberg launched his idea of the metaverse, he proclaimed people would find new friends and connect in new and amazing ways. That was a statement made by a technologist who has absolutely no understanding of human behaviour, culture or social structures and norms. This is a persistent pattern with technologists who take a solutionist approach to everything they do. It is a lack of critical thinking and understanding what it means to be human.
The technology industry tries to deal with this gap by using methodologies such as design thinking and service design because they emphasise empathy. While this is certainly good, it doesn’t actually lead to understanding humans in a more meaningful, whole-of-life way.
The fact is, no digital technology can solve for social loneliness. Technologies inherently create barriers and block out some of the most important facets of human social behaviours; body language, touch and non-verbal communication as well as semiotics.
For a metaverse to enable real human to human connections and foster relationships, it would have to incorporate all aspects of human social interactions. That means it would have to cross the “uncanny valley”, which so far, is technologically impossible.
Another key aspect of dealing with loneliness is touch. While VR goggles may be quite amazing and we may be able to add legs, none of it makes up for human touch. Not simulated through a body suit, but actual, real, human touch.
We humans touch each other constantly. A lot more than we often realise. From handshakes to fist bumps, shoulder taps and hugs to sexual interactions of skin on skin. Loneliness is often resolved when we not only speak to another human, but when we have physical contact, eyes meeting eyes and the sharing of our realities.
We all perceive our world in different ways. To find connection with one another, we share our perceptions of the world around us. We find common ground where we can since we all perceive reality in different ways, even when we live and work together.
There is currently no technology that can solve for these problems. Nor should it. Because it is not a problem to be solved and this is where social media and other technology companies get it wrong about humans. Technology cannot solve the problem of loneliness. It can help, absolutely. But it cannot solve for it.
The reality is, humans need real-world contact and physical contact, whether that’s a handshake or a hug. We are social creatures. Part of social bonding is physical connection. It’s why we created hugs, handshakes, nose rubbing and other means pf physical connection. It tells us who we are, where we are and that we are together. And who we can engage with.
Digital technologies can enable us to find like minded people, to share ideas of how we perceive and act in the real world. But they cannot cure loneliness and they can’t build meaningful, deep bonds. That is delusional. It may bring in ad revenue for a short term, but it is not sustainable. This is exemplified in how so many dating sites use A.I. and recruit humans to try and attract users. It’s a false economic model and it’s failing.
Science-Fiction and some new technologies would have us believe that we can solve for loneliness such as sex dolls and chatbots. They cannot. For some, they may fill a gap, but those are likely people who already have challenges with social interactions. In such cases technology may hurt more than help.
We are still in a physical world. What matters to us most is our physical connections. Robots and chatbots will increasingly play a role in Western societies where populations are in decline, but they won’t solve for loneliness, not in the long term. No matter how cute we make a robot, it is not a warm human being.
The technology companies that understand the limitations and spend time understanding where the liminalities are between technology and humans, will be the ones to succeed. The better approach would be to augment and aid, not try to solve and resolve with technology.
Technology works best when it is invisible and sits in the background, supporting, augmenting and aiding. The more intrusive a technology is, the less it is trusted, valued and adopted.