Commentary: Technology reshapes modern ideas about loneliness

(Karly Domb Sadof | AP file photo) This Feb. 19, 2014, file photo shows the Facebook app icon on an iPhone in New York. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that several phone apps are sending sensitive user data to Facebook, including health information, without users’ consent. The report says an analytics tool called “App Events” allows app developers to record user activity and report it back to Facebook, even if the user isn’t on Facebook.

Until recently, missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could phone their families only on Christmas and Mother’s Day. That policy has changed. Now they can phone, video-chat or text home weekly.

Designed to help missionaries cope with feelings of disconnection from home and family, the new policy comes as a relief for some, a worry for others. These anxieties are not new, for Americans have long thought about solitude, homesickness and how technology is reshaping these feelings.

Nineteenth-century Americans considered homesickness a serious disease, which they termed “nostalgia.” Doctors claimed individuals far from home could die of it and documented its fatal effects. People talked openly of their homesickness — the feeling signaled one was rooted and belonged to a particular community. In contrast, contemporary Americans are less apt to medicalize homesickness or even admit to it, for modern society values mobility. Jobs often require it; at times, so does our faith.

Another feeling missionaries experience is loneliness. While homesickness and loneliness are entangled and often conflated, their histories diverge. Nineteenth-century Americans accepted loneliness as part of the human condition and, while they sometimes longed for sociability, they had more modest expectations about how many people they could know and how fast they could be in touch.

Not coincidentally, the term “solitude” had more currency than it does today, and many Americans celebrated aloneness. As Rev. William Alger wrote in 1867, solitude made individuals self-reliant but also taught them how to commune with others:

"One of the most valuable uses of solitude is to prepare us for society. He who studies, when alone ... makes seclusion a ... church, and takes the surest means to commend himself to his fellow men ... when he shall return from his retirement to mingle with others again.

These beliefs about the virtues of disconnection are not entirely absent today. We marvel when rock climber Alex Honnold shirks companionship and free solos up El Capitan. We’re entertained by modern Robinson Crusoe stories like “The Martian.” We still avidly read accounts of latter-day Thoreaus, living in the wilderness.

Sometimes we celebrate the feeling in ourselves: A returned missionary we interviewed confided his mission had taught him to “slow down ... You go two years and you don’t absolutely need ... [your phone] every day. ... You learn ... to use it in moderation; ... you shouldn’t waste your life with it.”

But in general, in our hyper-connected age, Americans find disconnection difficult, seeing fewer virtues in being alone than 19th-century Americans did. One sign of this is that use of the positively inflected word “solitude” is declining, while the words “loneliness” and “loner,” laden with pathological connotations, are rising. Meanwhile, a “loneliness industry” of therapists, social media and communication companies promise to cure our loneliness. Astoundingly, researchers even talk of a forthcoming anti-loneliness pill.

These contending cultural signals compete for our moral commitments. In pursuit of better jobs, we embrace mobility, disavow homesickness, and assert our independence. Yet concerned about the perils of loneliness, we’re less interested than our forebears in pursuing solitude’s virtues.

Now missionaries and their families offer another chapter in the complicated history of American emotions. Religion, technology and language reshape our feelings and our experience of them. In their time away, missionaries, like others who purposefully spend time off the grid, hope to gain a better, clearer sense of themselves.

Understanding the history of American emotions, and how that history shapes us all, can play a part in that enlightenment.

Luke Fernandez, Ph.D., teaches in the Weber State University School of Computing.

Susan Matt, Ph.D., teaches in the Weber State University History Department.

This essay is adapted from their book, “Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter,” which comes out from Harvard University Press in May.