You wake up in the morning, alone.
You reach for your phone and see a bunch of messages. Half of them are ads, and the other half are from people you don’t really care much for, so you ignore them.
You do your thing, get dressed and head out for work.
You get onto the train, which is crowded. You’re surrounded by strangers, but you have your earphones in and you don’t know any of them anyway.
You get to your building and pick up a coffee. The barista is friendly and he’s kinda cute and knows your name, but you barely remember his.
You get to the office. Your co-workers are cordial and friendly, but you wouldn’t exactly call any of them close friends.
You do your work. Lunchtime rolls around. If you’re in London, you grab a sandwich you bought at Pret. If you’re in Singapore, you grab some chicken and rice. You eat lunch at your desk.
You do more work.
6pm rolls around. It’s time to go home.
You grab some food alone on the way home. Sometimes you quietly eat at a hawker centre, surrounded by strangers. Other times you just want to be alone and grab takeout and eat it at home.
You wind down for the day with some Netflix, play on your phone for a bit and then go to sleep, alone.
You’ve just gone through your entire day surrounded by people, but entirely and utterly alone.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones. You get to catch up with a some friends for dinner and drinks on the weekend… but that’s your social contact for the week.
164 hours of being socially atomised. 4 hours of real human connection.
Welcome to Social Atomisation
This is what we call social atomisation.1The actual correct term is social isolation, but it just doesn’t sound as sexy. There’s also social alienation but that has political connotations which just confuses things. And it’s a problem , though it mostly exists through no real fault of our own.
And thankfully there is a solution – connecting with others in the real world – but it’s not exactly that simple.
Utterly Alone Yet Surrounded By People
I’m sure you’ve felt it – something is a little bit off with the modern world.
We have all this amazing technology. We have hundreds of friends on Facebook and thousands of followers on Instagram. We have lively conversations on Twitter all the time. And yet, while we are surrounded by people, we are utterly alone.
What is happening, is we are spending all day interacting with people who we have no real ongoing relationship with. It could be our co-workers, our barista, or even random people on the train. We see them regularly, but they just kind of fade away into the background.
Society has been set up in such a way where we can function as individual units with no real social bonds.
Society makes it incredibly easy for us to live in our own self-contained bubbles.
Society has been atomised.
Who is Socially Atomised?
Of course, this does not affect everyone. If you have a family you see every day, you are not socially atomised.2Though you could argue that many people living in families they can’t relate to ARE socially atomised. If you live in a close-knit community of strong ties, you are not socially atomised.
But for everyone else, social atomisation is very real.
It could be because you are an introvert and gain the most energy being by yourself.3Extroverts usually force themselves to go out and be amongst the people because that’s how they energise themselves.
It could be you have just moved to a new/big city for work, and you only have a couple of close friends and no S.O. yet.
It could be because you’re older and retired – many of your friends and family have moved or passed away, and you spend more and more time by yourself.
Or it could just be that somewhere between university4College for Americans. and work and before family life, the explosion in global connectedness has left you a little overwhelmed.
What Happens When We Are Socially Atomised?
There is a very real-world effect when you are socially atomised.
We Become Smartphone Zombies
Let’s start with the obvious one – most socially atomised people nowadays are essentially smartphone zombies.
They are so completely engrossed with technology, that they have forgotten how to relate to the real world.
I went to renew my passport the other day. Every booth had a small sign that read “If you can manage it, please put your phone away for the 10 minutes it takes us to complete your application”.
That we even need a sign like that is telling.
Younger people today spend their days broadcasting, commenting and liking things on their phone… but never talking in person.5OK, this applies to some older people as well.
And because of this they do not have the ability to relate to people in real life. They can’t confront others. They can’t assert what they want. They can’t express how they feel.
They experience life as a flash of unrelated events with zero continuity, because that’s how we use our phones.
For everything that they want to do, they wish there was an app that could do it for them.
They are more likely to take a photo of something, post it online and meta-comment on it, than to interact with it in the real world.
This makes sense. When you are socially atomised, you cannot connect with people, so you connect with the only other major source of stimulation in your environment – your phone.
This leads to poor boundaries, poor communication skills and the occasional person who watches videos on their phone while walking.
Obviously, this is bad for the person who is socially atomised.
But it also affects the people around them.
We See Others As Non-Playable Characters (NPCs)6I refer to NPC in the non-political video game sense.
When we are socially atomised, other people fade into the background. We stop seeing other people as real people.
We often forget that there is another living, breathing human being at the other end of the app or call.
Other people simply become non-playable characters (NPCs) to us – characters we can briefly interact with, but otherwise readily ignore.
One of the effects of social atomisation is that people don’t see flesh-and-blood people in front of them anymore. They have been become accustomed to seeing people on two-dimensional screens.
I had a friend describe it to me like this the other day:
“People have become options. Like browser tabs. If we don’t like them or something else more interesting comes up, we just close the tab and don’t think twice about it.”
Consider the danger in this – other living, breathing human beings have become something we can just swipe away or click close on.
We Start To Exhibit Strange Social Behaviours
Social atomisation leads to a few interesting social behaviours.
The first is a whole generation of people who have poor social and sensory skills. When you are used to seeing people as two-dimensional objects on a screen, you lose all the rich sensory information that comes with connecting with people in real life.
The shape of someone’s face. How their hair flows. How their lips move to form the tone and rhythm of their speech. How they rest their weight on one leg as they smile and talk to you.
The second is ghosting, where someone just ups and vanishes from another person’s life completely.
You could argue that at a personal level this is somewhat acceptable, but even businesses are starting to see professional ghosting nowadays: candidates who don’t show up for job interviews, or employees who walk out on a Friday, never to return.
The third is social unreliability.
Some people call this flakiness, though I think that is a little bit different. This is more along the lines of “let’s catch up… if something better doesn’t come up between now and then”.
What this person is saying is essentially “I’m socially atomised, so I just seek out the biggest, shiniest source of stimulation that I can find. Right now that’s you, but if anything shinier or brighter comes along, I’ll completely forget about you and go do that instead”.
Aristotle believed that the overarching purpose of life was long-term happiness. Being socially atomised does not make us happy in the long term.
More likely, it results in a lot of aimless wandering, with no real mission or purpose.
This leads to a life where we just respond to what other people script us to do – bouncing like a pinball from NPC to NPC… until we become an NPC ourselves.
Why Do We Socially Atomise Ourselves?
I mentioned earlier that social atomisation can happen through no real fault of our own. And here’s why I believe that.
Because Of Structural Atomisation
Firstly, there are structural factors in play. These are just features of the modern world that we have little or no control over – they simply are:
- Urbanisation. This is more people moving to big cities for work.
- Open borders and the ability to relocate.
- Decline of traditional family and social units, which results in everything from fragmented family units to bad/absent parenting.7Ever seen a parent hand their child an iPad to keep them entertained?
- Anonymity, especially online. When you don’t know who another person is and you think they don’t know who you are, you feel that your actions have no real-world consequences, and viciousness often comes out.
- Anomie. This is a lack of moral guidance from the community to individuals. This is partly because of Western values (more on this below) and partly because of technology.
- Technology. Specifically, phones and the Internet.
I am not saying that we should reverse all of these things. Some of them have done a lot of good for the world and humanity.
It is just that sometimes with the good, comes some bad.
Because Of Individualism
Secondly, there is the dominance of Western values in the world. By this I mean liberalism and individualism.
Look, I love individualistic culture as much as anyone else who grew up in the West. But we have to realise that it comes with a cost – and that cost is social atomisation.
Individualistic culture creates a sense of competition and performance demands. As a result, we end up focusing heavily on achievement and forget to connect with the people around us.
It is great that we get to be individuals, but taken too far, it can deprive us of our connections with others.
Because Of Technology, Knowledge and Ideas
Thirdly, technology has fragmented our acquisition of knowledge and ideas.
We now have the ability to pick and choose what we want to learn and consume. So we learn a little bit here, and a little bit there. And somewhere along the way, we lose context.
This is not necessarily a bad thing – it can be an incredibly efficient way to cover a lot of ground quickly.
But overdone, it means that what we learn and know often has no coherent structure. We are not receiving a “complete education” anymore.
Another thing that technology has allowed for is the creation of very specific online niche communities and tribes. This is great on the one hand, and terrible on the other.
Yes, we get to hone-in on the one specific thing that we enjoy and find other like-minded people. But it sometimes comes at the cost of ignoring the wider world and society-at-large.
Because… Is This All In Our Heads?
Lastly, it is worth asking if social atomisation is a self-created problem or something that has simply resulted from the current state of the world.
I believe it is a bit of both.
It is not just teenage or millennial angst, as there are real structural reasons for social atomisation.
But at the same time, we do often make it worse for ourselves.
Look, I get it. I’m an introvert. There are times when I want to do nothing more than stay in, put on some noise-cancelling headphones, ignore all my messages, block out the rest of the world and just do what I do.
I also love automation and systems and technology. And yes, people can be an absolute pain sometimes. But then I remember why I do what I do. Some of it is for me, yes, but a large part of it is also for others.
Humanity’s greatest advantage as a species is our ability to cooperate with others whom we often don’t have strong ties with.
And even though modern society is so-well structured and systemised that I could function entirely fine on my own for the next thirty, forty or fifty years… it is not likely to lead to long-term happiness.
What We Can Do About Social Atomisation
There are two aspects to handling social atomisation.
There’s your mindset, or how you think about it. And then there are your actions, or what you can do in the real world.
There are three big things that you can remind yourself of:
1. We are made for others, not just ourselves.
This comes from Stoicism. We exist on this planet and in this life not just for ourselves, but for others as well.
You cannot live in a bubble of one.
This can be hard to stomach if you are an introvert, but you will be a better person if you believe it and live this way, even if it doesn’t fit your nature immediately.
2. Your life is yours to live.
You live in the greatest movie/video game/series of all time, and you are the hero.
How do you choose to develop your character:
- Will you go out exploring amongst the people and world at large?
- Or will you sit in your house and let the world pass you by?
3. There is no right or wrong way to connect with people, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.8That includes me by the way.
When it comes to people, do what makes you happy.
Some people have friends they just go to museums with.
Some people have friends they only see every month or two as they’re all busy hustling.
Some people have friends they watch Netflix with.
Whatever it is you like to do, so long as you are connecting with others, what other people think can be damned.
Let’s get practical.
The first thing is to learn solid communication and social skills.
The second is to go beyond your specific niche community and bubble.
This could be the forums or subreddits you frequent online. It could be your self-contained neighbourhood bubble.
Go join some new tribes and groups. Some will be good, some will be bad. That’s just how life is, and there is nothing wrong with that.
I’m a millennial. As a generation we have certain… issues… but we were still forced to interact with the wider world as part of growing up. We joined sports teams, community groups, companies AND hopped online and found/founded all sorts of niche communities.
I worry a bit when I see my younger cousins or friends in Generation Z. From the time they were able to hold a smartphone, they were able to join very niche groups and tribes right away… but a lot of them did so at the expense of interacting with the wider world.
The third thing is the cliched advice to go out into the real world and make human connections.
This could be at school, at work, in industry.9Yes, you can incorporate “human connection” as part of your work. Pretty cool right?
Join community groups. Play team sports. Find religion.
Whatever it is, it is not going to be found within the four edges of your phone screen.
What To Do Next
Go out and connect with someone. Preferably in the real world, but online if you have to. It will be good for them, and good for you.
- The actual correct term is social isolation, but it just doesn’t sound as sexy. There’s also social alienation but that has political connotations which just confuses things.
- Though you could argue that many people living in families they can’t relate to ARE socially atomised.
- Extroverts usually force themselves to go out and be amongst the people because that’s how they energise themselves.
- College for Americans.
- OK, this applies to some older people as well.
- I refer to NPC in the non-political video game sense.
- Ever seen a parent hand their child an iPad to keep them entertained?
- That includes me by the way.
- Yes, you can incorporate “human connection” as part of your work. Pretty cool right?