Art and Exploration, Deep Thoughts, Privacy and Protection, Second Life

Virtual Worlds as a Cure for Loneliness

Two books reviewed by Andrew Stark in the Wall Street Journal doesn’t a trend make, but perhaps there’s a wider cultural shift to communities-based approaches to wellness. As much as I dislike Malcolm Gladwell, for example, his book Outliers makes the (obvious) point that successful people aren’t self made, they’re a product of circumstance, culture and community. Remembering the social and cultural contexts in which “success” is derived can “lift all boats” in Gladwell’s view.

Obama campaigned on hope and change. But the role of the family was a big part of his world view: turn off the TV, communicate with your kids, be responsible. He’s also a big believer in the Nudge theory of libertarian paternalism: the idea that government should not REMOVE choice but should architect choice so that it nudges you in the right direction.

Assessing Loneliness
The books that Stark reviews in the Wall Street Journal, try to place the idea of loneliness in context, first reminding us that we don’t need to be alone to feel lonely:

“As we all know, a sense that one is isolated from the rest of humanity can descend at all sorts of times — not only on a bleak street at dawn, or in an out-of-town hotel room or during the kind of “solitary restaurant dinner” that F. Scott Fitzgerald saw as the epitome of “haunting loneliness.” The sense of loneliness can come upon us even at a raucous office party or a family dinner by a crackling fire or amid jostling crowds of bargain-hunting Christmas shoppers.”

The books argue that conquering loneliness would have public health benefits, that “among other things…a concerted attack on loneliness would improve public health as well as individual happiness.”

Loneliness, they demonstrate, “is actually associated with a raft of social pathologies: everything from addiction, depression and uncontrollable anger to impaired cardiovascular functioning and damage to the brain’s “executive control” center. Studies even suggest that a rejection by humans “can increase the tendency to anthropomorphize one’s pet.”

Now, this being the Wall Street Journal and all, their solutions don’t hold a lot of water with Stark. Apparently, the recommendation that “everything from saying “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” to the grocer and taking therapy to prevent negative thoughts to finding human connection on the Internet” is a cure that may be worse than the disease.

The Web as a Solution
What intrigued me was that the books argue that social media, including Second Life specifically, might be solutions to loneliness. Stark takes exception of course.

But first, the books argue that we all need three types of human connection to cure loneliness:

“With intimate or romantic partners, with close friends and with our “collectivity” — the community or nation as a whole. A failure on any one of these fronts is what produces loneliness.”

And I suppose my reaction was that there are a wide range of reasons that these things can be inaccessible: a sense of alienation from our “given” communities (say, being gay in a small town); the inability to find others who share similar interests or passions; or other more tangible issues of accessibility.

And doesn’t online media allow us, in some ways, to supplement our atomic connections, our sense of community, or to provide what maybe isn’t possible in the first place?

The reviewer argues that there are as many cons as pros, and I don’t entirely disagree:

“Think of YouTube. You may seek a connection with the “community” through your latest clever posting, but it may also attract the attention of the annoying “best friend forever” you hoped you’d left behind at your last job, not to mention the long-ago college amour who has built a shrine to you next to the computer monitor.”

But this doesn’t speak so much to whether youTube is a solution to loneliness, it speaks to wider issues of identity, our digital portfolios, and anonymity: and the solutions and concepts around these things are, indeed, some of the most challenging issues of our times. But just because they haven’t been solved doesn’t mean that the solution doesn’t work, it just means it has some kinks to iron out.

Second Life as a Cure for Loneliness
Stark writes:

“Even on “Second Life,” the virtual world in which participants assume the guise of onscreen cartoonish characters — and which Messrs. Cacioppo and Patrick endorse as a possible source of connection — one cannot act out intimate fantasies with one’s virtual partner without chancing that other virtual friends will saunter by and take a peek. Or that a real-life spouse will discover what’s going on and file for divorce, as happened to a British couple earlier this year, according to recent reports about the virtually faithless David Pollard and his corporeal wife, Amy Taylor.”

Stark takes the cheap way out. The notion that there’s a lack of privacy in Second Life barely holds water: I can think of very few platforms where the notion of anonymity is so furiously protected, where there is more pressure to uphold and respect anonymity and privacy.

Even IF your virtual friends sauntered by for a peek – how many times would they really CARE? Sure, there’s cheating and emo and jealous virtual spouses, but first, this ignores the fact that primarily people don’t CARE; second, anonymity is nearly sacrosanct (it’s written into the TOS after all); and third, it focuses on ROMANTIC intimacy.

It strikes me that Second Life is not just about sex and dating. It can work on all three levels in which loneliness can arise: it allows intimacy if you choose that, but more importantly it allows you to enter a community, to create close friendships with people that share your passions, and to join a collectivity that you may not otherwise have access to in the actual world.

Second Life as Story
I’ve written before about Second Life as a Story Box, and quoted Kevin Kelly:

A major theme of this present century will be the pursuit of our collective identity. We are on a search for who we are. What does it mean to be a human? Can there be more than one kind of human? In fact, what exactly is a human?

We get to play with answers to these questions online. In Second Life, or in chat rooms, we can chose who we want to be, our gender, our genetics, even our species. Technologies gives us the means to switch genders, inhabit new forms, modify our own bodies.

Thus, perhaps, virtual worlds go beyond notions of extending the cultural and social spaces in which we live – as places where we create friendships and form intimacies. They may in fact be testing grounds for new definitions of identity in an era in which both our collective and individual notions of community and self are changing.

Thomas Dumm’s book, Loneliness as a Way of Life, reminds us that our language is often inadequate to the task of describing loneliness. But through language we find common ground, says Stark:

“The greatest writers may have shown how language itself is inadequate to the experience of loneliness. But we have written our experience of loneliness deeply into the language. That too, though, goes to underscore the point that Mr. Dumm’s honest book makes: While the “lonely self will always be with us,” we can at least come together in search of imaginative ways of expressing that loneliness. We can “write and read to tell each other how we are to be lonely together.”"

Virtual worlds are perhaps in addition a new form of ‘language’. They are not only have a place in which we can forge bonds that can help overcome our feelings of being alone, but can find new forms for describing loneliness which, I’d propose, can not be entirely escaped, which is part of the human condition.

Virtual worlds are another response to our human condition. As I said in relation to Second Life as a Story Box:

But what strikes me is that these questions really aren’t so new – that in our rush to question the technology and its implications, we forget that we’ve been gathered around the camp fire before, and that we used to believe in magic, and we used to know what it was like to wonder whether we were appeasing or angering the ancient spirits, and that it was only through stories that we could craft our feeble response on those dark nights.

In his Massey Lecture, Alberto Manguel reminds us that in Anglo-Saxon the word for poet was maker (and what is Second Life if not a community of ‘makers’?), and that:

Makers shape things into being, granting them their intrinsic identity. Still in a corner of their workshops and yet drifting with the currents of the rest of humanity, makers reflect back the world in its constant ruptures and changes, and mirror themselves in the unstable shapes of our societies, becoming what the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario called “celestial lightning rods” by asking over and over again “Who are we?” and by offering the ghosts of an answer in the words of the question itself.

The world in which we live, whether the atomic or the virtual, is constructed as much from how we imagine it and the stories we can tell of being in it as a destination or a refuge or a home. The stories we tell are what give us the powerful protections and bonds, our silent spaces within which we feel alone, or our communal tales in which we feel our connections beyond ourselves.

Manguel beckons us with stories which, he says “can offer consolation for suffering and words to name our experience. Stories can tell us who we are and what are these hourglasses through which we sift, and suggest ways of imagining a future that, without calling for comfortable happy endings, may offer us ways of remaining alive, together, on this much-abused earth.”

Virtual worlds may not be the cure for loneliness, but in them we can share a space in which our imaginary tales can offer us the outlet for reminding us that we are, indeed, truly human.


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