Remembering a legendary teacher
Kurt Vonnegut and the Terrible Disease of Loneliness
In his book Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut argues that the “number one American killer [isn’t] cardiovascular disease, but loneliness.” Despite increased connection with our friends, loved ones, and the world outside our door, we find ourselves frequently feeling alone and aimless.
In a commencement address given in 1994, Vonnegut claimed that all people have “spiritual needs,” things “which human beings, by their nature, can ill-afford to live without.” One of these needs is the desire for a stable community of like-minded individuals with whom to share life experiences. If people lack this type of community, they will contract “the terrible disease of loneliness.”
In other words, we’re lonely because we are divorced from the relationships we crave.
There are plenty of things that can cut us off from the community we need. Everything from the way we construct our buildings and cities to the political philosophy of liberalism contribute to widespread modern loneliness. In contrast to these environmental factors and ubiquitous ideologies, however, there is one purveyor of loneliness that we largely bring upon ourselves: technology.
For decades, technological cautionary tales and horror stories have dominated literature, television, and movies. Blade Runner 2049, Black Mirror, Westworld, and Altered Carbon are all recent science fiction dramas that speak to fears surrounding the potential ramifications of new technologies. Something about new technology terrifies us deep down.
Yet despite our fears, we continue to adopt new technologies at unprecedented rates with little regard for the consequences. We purchase the latest apps, the newest phones, fancy digital assistants. On a surface level, we act as if we understand the implications of new technologies and the role they will play in our lives going forward. We convince ourselves that we are thinking deeply about technology when really we are just spinning far-off horror stories that blind us to the problems technology presents.
In contrast to flashy futuristic tales, Vonnegut’s criticisms of technology feel remarkably relatable, based on everyday lived experience. He asks us to think critically about the ways in which technology disrupts the normal human relationships we might otherwise develop. He also challenges us to think about the difference between real community and “electronic” community, and condemns the way we turn to technology as a salve for our loneliness when, in reality, technology is at least partially to blame for our loneliness in the first place.
It is no surprise that Vonnegut, a writer who saw the golden age of short story writing collapse under the weight of the widespread adoption of television, is no fan of the screen. But Vonnegut’s reason for disliking TV is less curmudgeonly than humane. His final novel, Timequake, includes a short story about an alien who invents the television. The invention soon replaces traditional learning: rather than develop their imaginations, the aliens learn from a box that gives them images splashed across a screen. As they lose their imaginative abilities, they lose the ability to “read interesting, heartwarming stories in the faces of one another.”
The notion of reading “stories in the faces of one another” is significant because it suggests that imagination is more than a capacity to daydream. Rather, the imagination is a faculty of moral apprehension that enables the individual to connect empathetically with others. Imagination is the means by which we see beyond our own narrow frame of reference. As Russell Kirk puts it, “It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes.”
If the imagination enables us to see beyond our own experiences, then a poorly developed imagination mentally isolates us from relating to the experiences of others. This is exactly what Vonnegut fears.
Vonnegut also reasons that technology has the additional side effect of practically preventing normal human interactions from taking place at all. In A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut discusses how something as simple as his writing process in the era of the typewriter had the natural tendency to bring him into regular contact with people in his community. In order to send his hand-edited manuscripts to his typist, Vonnegut would go to the corner store to purchase envelopes, pass a newsstand with a friendly attendant, head to the post office and stand in line, and along the way encounter both new faces and old ones. At the end of it all, Vonnegut says, “I go home. And I have had one hell of a good time.” In the era of Internet and email, a writer can bypass this entire process and never have to interact directly with another person.
Beyond the writing process, think of how many chance interactions we miss in our Wi-Fi-soaked, earbud-wearing, screen-addicted world. How many people might we meet and speak with if our priorities were different or our devices absent? The conceivable ways in which technology gets between us and other people are innumerable, and Vonnegut finds that troubling.
If Vonnegut is right in his belief that we need personal interactions with other humans to feel satisfied, and that we are losing those interactions at least partially due to technology, we would expect to see people pursue a substitute to try to satisfy that need. In the absence of incidental interactions or close-knit communities, the contemporary substitute is what Vonnegut calls the “electronic community,” such as the online forum or social media network. These are places where we look for friendship, comradery, and like-minded individuals.
The very ways in which we use our new technologies lends weight to Vonnegut’s suggestion that we all have spiritual needs that include interactions with and validation from other people. Families wrapped up in the opioid crisis, for example, are turning to social media to find the support and friendship they need to cope with the problems in their real-world communities. Commenting on the phenomenon of social media, Alan Jacobs suggests that we are not addicted to devices, but rather “we are addicted to one another, to the affirmation of our value—our very being—that comes from other human beings. We are addicted to being validated by our peers.” Social media promises to give us this validation when we fail to find it elsewhere.
It’s not that finding online communities is bad per se; rather, our tendency to seek them out says something troubling about other forms of community that seem to be disappearing. It is only in the absence of tangible communities that the craving for validation through electronic community becomes necessary. When we do not find the relationships we need in families, churches, social clubs, and other real-world groups, we turn to an ethereal electronic world that promises happiness.
In fact, research now shows a strong correlation between increased smartphone use by young people and depression, thoughts of suicide, and suicide attempts, while “adolescents who spent more time on nonscreen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services)” were less likely to experience all of the above. Even Apple investors have begun calling for increased efforts to combat the mental health problems that appear to have arisen as a result of smartphones “replacing old-fashioned human interaction.”
To be clear, it would be unreasonable to say that technology is the only cause of loneliness, or even the primary cause, and Vonnegut certainly doesn’t. Vonnegut variously points to the absence of large families, the breakdown of traditional communities, and modern political structures as causes of loneliness that cut us off from those around us. However, technology becomes a unique case in that it is the only cause of loneliness that simultaneously offers itself up to us as a solution to a problem for which it is partially responsible. We buy into the notion that new devices, social media, and online forums can alleviate our loneliness only by forgetting the ways in which technology keeps us away from real-world community in the first place.
Technology is then both an originator and a perpetuator of the disease of loneliness. It creates loneliness by damaging the imagination and cutting the individual off from real-world interactions that build traditional community. We then paradoxically attempt to cure our loneliness by turning to the very thing that fosters it in the first place. The remaining loneliness is itself evidence of needs left unfulfilled by the electronic communities we have created and the validation we receive through them. Perhaps Vonnegut was right to argue, “Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something.”
In a letter to a friend, Vonnegut wrote, “A writer is first and foremost a teacher.” As we begin to experience new consequences of our unchecked technological advancement, it might help to understand what it is Vonnegut is trying to teach us about the dangers of “newfangled contraptions.” Though Vonnegut himself wrote some fiction of the dystopic, technological terror variety, he asks us to look closer than the far-off horror stories to understand better the technology that creeps into every part of our lives.
Before binging the new season of Black Mirror, we might consider revisiting the cultural criticism of Kurt Vonnegut and seek to adopt approaches to technology that can help us cure our loneliness long before the robots take over. Or simply take Vonnegut’s advice: put down the phone, close the laptop, grab some friends, and go have “one hell of a good time.”
Philip is a graduate of Patrick Henry College and a 2016 Intercollegiate Studies Institute Honors Scholar. He is currently a Ph.D. student in political theory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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