Book: “The Lonely Century” – Noreena Hertz (Read)

The world is growing lonelier, but we can change that.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Noreena Hertz believes that in the century when everyone is seemingly “connected” by the internet, the entire human race has grown even lonelier than ever. “Loneliness is not the same as being alone, you can be physically surrounded by people and still feel lonely”. The effects of loneliness have both mental and physiological impacts to our body, and by not solving the loneliness crisis, it is akin to dying from a slow-but-deadly disease. Major causes of loneliness include smartphone, social media, discrimination, lack of infrastructure for communities, and much more. The potential catastrophe may just be lowering birth rates, leading to a decreasing population until the issues are addressed.

While several governmental interventions have started to bring back infrastructure and other means of human connection, it is far from enough. The private sector is not doing enough, and implementations so far are suboptimal (WeWork etc.). The problem will likely grow exponentially in the future as tech adoption further rises (VR), so it’s a good time to think about disrupting the industry.


This Is the Lonely Century

  • During COVID, one psychologist concluded that callers are more afraid of loneliness than getting infected.
  • RentAFriend by Scott Rosenbaum was a success, as the original concept took off in Japan, now has over 620k platonic friends for hire. Typically, aged 30-40 customers in the US, described as people who “work long hours, and don’t seem to have the time or effort to make many friends”.
  • 3 in 5 (60%) of US adults considered themselves lonely, even before the “social recession” triggered by COVID. 1 in 5 millennials (26-41) say they have no friends at all. In the UK, there was a Minister for Loneliness. Germany, 60% of the population believed loneliness to be a serious problem. Same problem in Asia, Australia, South America, and others. Japan’s elderly prisoner issue is eye-opening, elderly people will commit shoplifting, one of the easiest crimes to commit to go to jail, so they can experience a sense of “community” in the prison cell (they call it an oasis). Numbers have been getting worse amongst 15-year-olds in school, rising consistently between 2003 and 2015.
  • It’s not just a mental health crisis, but a crisis that’s making people physically ill. Statistically, loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
  • Loneliness is not the same as being alone, you can be physically surrounded by people and still feel lonely. There is a UCLA Loneliness Scale able to measure loneliness.
  • Major causes: smartphone, social media, discrimination (gender, race, and more), lack of infrastructure for communities (decreased, federal library funding decreased by more than 40% between 2008 and 2019).
  • Neoliberalism leading to: Avg US CEO earns 58x average worker’s money in 1989, now it’s 278x in 2018. Self-serving policies are destroying the society.
  • Language is important, using “we”, “us”, “belong”, “together”, “duty” and other collectivist words can help.

Loneliness Kills

  • Under stress of loneliness: Cholesterol rises faster, blood pressure rises faster, cortisol (stress hormone) rises faster, inflammation and other symptoms all build up over time, making people much more prone to diseases. A study by John Hopkins found serious cancer later in life dating back to people’s childhood loneliness.
  • Haredi people (a branch of Judaism) eat very “unhealthy” according to present day nutritional science. Not much exercise and vitamin D intake. Most live below the poverty line. Their life expectancy is higher than average, thanks to the participation in the associated community (rather than the belief itself). Roseto, the anomaly of the 1950s, showed the same increased life expectancy rate, which diminished when the community ties eroded in the 1960s.
  • Beware of antagonistic and insular community building.
  • Stress response is triggered by loneliness is like putting car permanently into first gear: it gets you moving, but over extended periods, the engine will be damaged.
  • Quarantine has led to significant results of depression, often years after the short quarantine period (1-2 weeks), like SARS and potentially COVID. Loneliness can also lead to suicide in teens, and memory loss and dementia in elders.
  • The helper’s high is beneficial: doing small acts to others without expecting anything in return has a similar effect as being on the receiving end of kindness and care. However, jobs like such have been underappreciated and underpaid in recent decades.

The Lonely Mouse

  • For democracy to function well, there needs to be a solid connection between the state and the citizen, and amongst the citizens themselves.
  • Donald Trump supporters were much more likely to replay “I just rely on myself”, and much less likely to participate in community activities. Studies have shown that people who are members of any association are less likely to vote for right-wing populist parties. Trump appealed to people’s sense of abandonment, by attacking opposing parties (generating rage) and always reinforcing that he is listening. He hosted way more gatherings, even after becoming president, to reinforce this “brotherhood” and rituality. “People” was the most used word in his speeches.

The Solitary City

  • People use Tinder as an app to “talk to” someone, not wanting to meet the person because that may feel like too much effort.
  • Stirring up the memory is a good way of instilling pleasure and reinforcing a sense of belonging especially if the physical location of the memory is accessible.
  • The well-established social convention is to read our newspapers and stare at our phones in silence.
  • The wealthier a city becomes, the faster our pace. The fast pace doesn’t just make us unsocial; it makes us antisocial.
  • Scripted micro-interactions can have significant positive impact. It turns out humans are bad at differentiating between performative friendliness and the real deal, so might as well speaking/smiling the welcomeness it into existence.
  • Airbnb and high churn make the community ties weaker in each area. Better and more stable rental schemes can help. Eating and living alone are also bad for community ties. That’s why online eating and live streams are so popular, but they are only effective to a certain extent. Non-verbal cues are very important, and physically coming together brings way too much that digital relationships cannot provide.

The Contactless Age

  • Amazon Go and other stores that optimize the shopping experience is to minimize socialization, which makes the author feel alienated in the age of contactless commerce.
  • Everything from store to city infrastructure is designed to deter unwanted stay, because people complain that homeless people take up these spaces. So instead of doing something about homelessness, cities just make the benches unsittable through “highly refined work of unpleasant design”.

Our Screens, Our Selves

  • We check our phones on average 3 hours and 15 mins a day, people typically sleep 8 hours, so that’s 20% of our lives. Digital distraction is worsening everywhere. There are examples of a mother using social media and playing on smartphone while their child lay dead in bathtubs. The physical presence of being together doesn’t help if you’re distracted. Delayed motor and communication skills are likely to impact the livelihood of children if exposed to these digital distractions, or if their parents are exposed to such distractions.
  • The less a human form (voice, shape, tone, warmth, and more) is represented in a conversation, the more likely people dehumanize the person. Text messages are the worst form of conversation. Empathy wanes.
  • You can’t learn non-verbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication. Children and screens are a serious issue, communication skills are impaired, and bullying follows you 24/7. Steve Jobs notoriously limited how much technology his kids used at home, while Bill Gates didn’t allow his kids to get mobile phones until 14, and still set screen-time limits. Deleting the Facebook app is almost 40% as effective as attending therapy.

Alone at the Office

  • 40% of people feel lonely at work. It causes people to switch or quit jobs. Contrary to conventional wisdom, open-plan offices are very alienating, and low in productivity as humans are easily distracted. Grabbing lunch with co-workers at the workspace is one of the more important things in addressing loneliness, but people rarely do it anymore. Atlassian give employ evaluation not only on personal performance, but also collaborative behaviors. Cisco (voted as the best company to work for) also has initiative for people to give out cash rewards to others, as tokens of appreciation.

The Digital Whip

  • Every human interaction is becoming “AI”ed, including hiring process (claiming to reduce human bias). Except algorithms are just as vulnerable to bias. Everything is being measured by algorithm as well, worker engagement, productivity, and more. People can’t fight back, they don’t have the data with them, so they just have to trust the system, which ultimately leads to profound alienation everywhere. Large corps own everything, CEO pay increased 930% since 1978, while the average worker wage grew only 12%.

Sex, Love, and Robots

  • The need for help with loneliness is much more serious than people think. People are paying for “friends”, people are paying to cuddle, some are living below their means just to pay for these services. People are getting attached even to robotic objects, like vacuum cleaners.

The Loneliness Economy

  • Glastonbury aka British Coachella has led to serious connections between people. Escape rooms and other event like activities have also grown in popularity. South Korea day-time discos are growing in popularity for elderly people. Tech companies are all “move fast and break things”, while local community spaces are about “move slow and build things”.
  • The apocalypse people are expecting might not be coming. But the result of loneliness could be less offspring, and enough of that, it’s the same as an apocalypse. There are companies trying to solve this problem through co-working space or co-living space, but they have significant barriers through memberships. Community is not something you can buy, or imposed by management, it has to come naturally, and it takes time.

Coming Together in a World That’s Pulling Apart

  • Don’t forget the marginalized group, could be a profession (artists, writers, and musicians) and more. Measure the “Gross Happiness” metrics when conducting policy making.
  • Political tinder in Germany is working quite well, and about 25% of matched users meet up for civilized debate.

My startup, Central Hut, is precisely created to address the loneliness crisis. It’s a very hard task, fighting against something as powerful as YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, and Instagram, all the while changing people’s everyday behaviors to address a non-immediate issue, albeit with severe consequences, that people may not even be aware about.

If I want to transform lonely people into community participants, I first need to get the foot in the door. I must look at how political campaigns appeal to people, and get a rally behind this movement. I need to exploit the helper’s high, and set up a program with the government’s support for C.Hut to help people with unemployment (inspiration from The Deficit Myth) & loneliness, all the while improving their skills.

This market is enormous, and likely to grow at a faster rate with tech adoption. No tech companies seem to really care about this, and no implementations so far from the private sector seem to be really helping (like WeWork), it’s ripe for disruption.

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