Loneliness and the Attention Economy

Feb 9, 2021 | Conversation, Wellness

I am struck by some overlaps between the “attention economy” and loneliness. In the New York Times Opinion piece “I Talked to the Cassandra of the Internet Age,” Charlie Warzel interviews Michael Goldhaber, describing him as “the internet prophet you’ve never heard of.” Over two decades ago, Goldhaber saw that the internet would demand all the attention we could pay to our world while offering us only a tiny amount of attention in return. “Our abilities to pay attention are limited. Not so our abilities to receive it,” he wrote in the journal First Monday.

Goldhaber perceived a future where a person could see attention being given everywhere except to themselves. In a 1997 essay in Wired, he warned us that this experience of “not being able to share your encounters with anyone would soon become torture – itself a pain you couldn’t express to anyone. Living without feedback, even in the lap of luxury, would be for all but a few recluses barely living at all.”

This lack of attention when attention is everywhere bears similarities with loneliness. In her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt described loneliness as “… the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”

Loneliness might be defined as the subjective feeling that you lack meaningful relationships or a solid support system. It is our personal emotional state of feeling apart from others when we don’t want to feel apart. The former (and now nominee) United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has described loneliness as an epidemic. Loneliness has doubled in the last four decades in America, from 20% to 40%. Studies indicate loneliness, living alone, and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is a public health issue significant enough that countries like Japan, Australia, Denmark and the United Kingdom have substantial public efforts in place holistically to tackle loneliness.

As similar as the experiences are of being lonely and of receiving insufficient attention, so are the possible solutions. These include authentic conversation, structured circumstances that facilitate connection, being engaged in endeavors that have real meaning to us, and volunteering or being in service to others.

Goldhaber wrote that “to pay attention to any particular person you do your best — however temporarily — to reshape your mind to hers.” Paying attention, and being paid attention to in return, is a prescription we might look to as we consider loneliness.

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