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SUBHODEV DAS

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 7/15/2016 |


Recently, I watched a video called The Innovation of Loneliness. Apparently, it had gone viral a few years ago. It illustrates some of the problems introduced by the proliferation of modern technologies, such as the internet and social media. Most of what the video talks about will feel familiar to the Millennials, like the ability to “self-edit” and be constantly plugged-in to our communication platforms.

The video acknowledges at the beginning that “man is a social creature” and we naturally form community. It goes on to making an interesting point that the modern Western value of Hyper Individualization has isolated the individual. The individual can now attain fulfillment outside of community through personal achievements, wealth, self-image, and consumerism. The video observes: “These tools of self-actualization replace familial and community relationships. This has led to social fabric weakening, and loneliness.”

Online social networks promote relationship “quantity” over relational “quality,” such as the number of Facebook “friends.” We determine the nature and frequency of our online interactions, thus becoming our own public relations specialists in the process. The video says that this creates a cycle. We are lonely and afraid of intimacy at the same time.

Online world offers us gratifying fantasies: because we control the flow of our information, we will always be heard; therefore, we are never alone. The idea that we will never have to be alone is a paradigm shift. As human beings, we crave community. Connectivity trumps intimacy. The video concludes “If we are not able to be alone, we are only going to know how to be lonely.”

My own interest in the video stems from the fact that I’m a parent of two Millennials. According to the most recent census, this demographic constitutes a third of current world population. In the U.S., Millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers, the generation to which I belong, to become the largest living generation. Within the next decade, representatives from this group are expected to head political and social institutions worldwide.

Millennials are also known as Global Generation. They are the first generation to embrace the notion of “shared fate.” They understand the connection each has to the other across the globe. But most of all, this is a generation which believes that as individuals they have the power to effect real change, not always by transforming our institutions, but by ignoring and circumventing them when necessary. They believe in measurable results and they focus on action not talk.

In the recently concluded primary phase of U.S. presidential election, Senator Bernie Sanders was the most popular candidate among U.S. Millennials. In the United Kingdom, the majority of Millennials opposed Brexit. In March 2014, the Pew Research Center issued a report about how "Millennials in adulthood" are "detached from institutions and networked with friends.”

Yet Millennials are also the Loneliest Generation and the video introduced earlier is a testament to that. Like the video says, connectivity is a powerful replacement to intimacy, and creates the illusion of being heard, and faux-community. There’s a dangerous side to the connectivity in an illusory world.

Jihadists have been deftly exploiting social media to promote their agenda and recruiting among the Western youth. As a result, Western Millennials are stocking the rank-and-files of ISIS and other similar-themed terror bands. Perhaps, it is the “loneliness” that is driving thousands of these youth to self-actualization in far-away places, to become “Jillennials” – jihadis who are Millennials.

The recent attack on a bakery in an upscale neighborhood of Dhaka, Bangladesh, has once again thrust the Jillennials into spotlight. These attackers were not stereotypical and did not travel to the “promised land.” They were mostly drawn from privileged classes, but their involvement exposed ‘the cracks’ in our modern society.

"That's not my son, that's not my son," lamented Meer Hayet Kabir in a TV interview for the global audience. He was the crestfallen father of the 18-year old Meer Sameh Mobasheer, who was the youngest of the five attackers of Holey Artisan Bakery on July 1. Mr. Kabir happens to be an executive of a telecommunications company, a hallmark of the globalized world.

As I watched the shaken family patriarch trying to come to terms with the realities on the ground, I began to reflect on the walled lives that the inhabitants of this globalized world are building.

Just hours ago, Mr. Kabir’s beloved son and his accomplices were systematically slaughtering hostages and uploading pictures using the tools of the interconnected world. This was the same offspring whom he gifted an English translation of the Quran so that his child could explore the tenets of Islam directly from its source, not through a warped interpretation elsewhere. Yet the lure of elsewhere overpowered parental discretion.

The last time Mobasheer's family saw him, he was walking out the door, munching on popcorn as he headed to an examination preparation class. On that evening of February 29, Mobasheer stepped out of his virtual living into a world unbeknown to the walled lives of his family.

And this was not just one disillusioned Millennial. The world came to know that all of Mobasheer’s accomplices went through similar transformations.

One would think that in this interconnected world of smart phones and smart apps, communication among family members living under one roof is a foregone conclusion. However, in the case of Mobasheer and his friends, the perennial generation gap was never bridged. Instead, in their search for real living, these youngsters ended up on the darker side of humanity.

Interestingly, the same tools of communication that often fail to connect the family members are deftly exploited by the darker forces. When the father of the San Bernardino shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, was inquired about his son’s background, Mr. Farook did not hesitate to speculate that overseas terrorists could have contacted his son using “internet and all this technology.”

The 9/11 attackers or the 2005 London bombers apparently had managed to keep their activities completely hidden from their respective families. How did they do it? They exploited the walls of isolation to pursue their agendas.

Radicalization is not the only escape route of younger generations from the compartmentalized modern lives. As the society organizes into nuclear family units, our mutual isolation increases. The economic underpinnings of the globalized world foster further dissociation as younger workforce often live large distances away from extended family and friends. Our growing reliance on social technologies rather than face-to-face interactions is thought to be making us feel more isolated. It means we feel less connected to others; consequently, our relationships are becoming more superficial and less rewarding.

We humans are social animals and any isolation, particularly for long term, breeds loneliness.

Each of us has experienced loneliness at certain points in life, whether due to death in the family, job relocation, going to college, etc. However, these are temporary events. Research suggests that this experience of loneliness has a positive aspect as it motivates us to reconnect with others and to seek out new friendships to reduce the "social pain" that we feel. But for some, when reconnection is not easy or not possible, those people can remain in this uncomfortable loneliness state for a number of years. Again, younger generations remain more vulnerable in the loneliness state.

Perhaps as a generation the Millennials will discover that the “tools of self-actualization” are a bit of a farce. How about a good conversation with someone who knows you and cares about you? “All you need is love” the Boomer generation said, but the reality of the values that were passed on to Millennials seems to contradict this sentiment. Perhaps the current loneliness epidemic is a good catalyst for a healthy change to prioritize relationships.

If this shift to prioritizing authentic relationships doesn’t happen though, the video might be right that Millennials are destined to be the Loneliest Generation. Like the video says, connectivity is only a substitute that can’t meet the needs of an individual for long, so I think most Millennials will eventually take the risk of trying to build real intimacy. In my opinion, the fear of loneliness will trump the fear of intimacy, though it could be a longer and harder battle for this generation than in the past.


[SUBHODEV DAS]

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