By Alison Main

“And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.”  
Simon & Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence (1964)

It was a hot summer night in 2007. Walking down the sultry streets of downtown Manhattan with my two best girlfriends, en route to dinner and drinks, one of my friends whipped out her iPhone. The very first iPhone. The iPhone that kept her squatting overnight, outside the 5th Avenue Apple Store, along with thousands of other burgeoning futurists. The iPhone that represented both trophy and promise of our digitally interconnected destinies. And it was all hers.

As she drew this obsessively acquired beacon out of her handbag, we “ooooh’d” and “aaaah’d.” We asked for tutorials. We concealed our envy. We requested play time, which she graciously granted. My fingertips danced over the magical glowing screen, delicately activating cartoon-like buttons that drew me out of my physical space and into cyber space. After bouncing from email app to text to web, I reluctantly handed the iPhone back to her. As she basked in her coveted possession, my second friend abruptly halted, looked straight at me, and in a severe tone, directed, “You. Alison. Never get that phone.” 

“But why?” I petulantly inquired. 

“Because you will do nothing else for the rest of your life, except hit: Check mail. Check mail. Check mail.” 

Did I heed her warning? Of course not. Who listens to sage advice when omnipotent ad agencies so clearly teach us how to be “smart?” 

Two years later, bored with my antiquated flip phone, failing in coolness factor while I attended media conferences and launched digital campaigns, I relented and bought my own iPhone. I reasoned with myself… this was solely a professional purchase. I needed to be accessible to my demanding clients. I needed to understand mobile marketing strategy. I needed to check the weather every five seconds (um, wait).

My prophetic friend wasn’t wrong. And not just about me. But as it turns out, she was right about everyone. What she glimpsed within me was the same latent existential anxiety we all carry within ourselves. As we wander through spaces and places, both bustling and quiet…we are all fundamentally afraid to be alone and unloved. And we’ll grasp at anything to pretend we are not.

Now, instead of a moon-shaped night light, we have a Netflix-streaming tablet. Instead of a pink cotton security blanket, we have a mobile device nestled under our pillows. And that’s just the beginning. There’s a reason you can’t stop checking your phone for messages, or scrolling through your Facebook timeline, or posting your pictorial life on Instagram. And it’s more than mere addiction. It’s one emotionally stimulating hit after the next, which breaks down to the following illusion: Someone texted me. Someone “Liked” me. I am loved. I am not alone.  

But, there’s no human love nor authentic connection in a digital ping.

Companies selling Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) products and services utilize some pretty slick psychological marketing strategies, designed to strike at our core vulnerabilities. If you’re “without” in this world, you can be “with” in their make-believe world. Strap on a VR headset, and suddenly, you’re not a socially awkward companionless kid who is teased and mocked in school. Rather, you’re transformed into a medieval knight with a powerful sword, slashing every enemy in your path, about to rescue your beautiful princess. Who would consciously choose to emerge from virtual reality and into reality when those worlds are so starkly different? In the material world, you’re a pariah. In the fake world, you’re king. The problem is, the adoring courtesans aren’t real. And you can’t put a tangible glass slipper on an avatar.

AI promises to give us solutions to problems Silicon Valley cogs have cunningly created. You’re desirous and lonely? Order a sex bot. You’re elderly and childless? Hire a robot caretaker. You’re overworked with a toddler? Employ an automated nanny. But generations before us figured out how to hook up, take care of their parents, and raise their kids, without a team of robots at the helm. What makes us so exponentially overburdened that we cannot do the same?  

People have been addicted to tobacco, drugs, alcohol, sugar, sex, and junk food for decades. But until digital tech and virtual reality, there’s been no other invention in the history of humankind that has so strategically manipulated our base human fear of being alone. From mobile to social to IoT, these technologies and networks trick our brains into thinking we’re connected to each other. When, in actuality, we’re not. 

We’re convinced that texting and emojis are drawing us closer, but we’re forgetting the energetic resonance of our friends’ voices and the comfort of our parents’ smiles. We think virtual gaming is fostering new communities, but our ghost-selves are wandering like holograms through pixelated forests, while our physical bodies are starved for grounding on the earth around a lively campfire. We think Jetsons-like automatons will offer us domestic peace and security, but we’re neglecting the healing power of human touch, and the soulful nourishment of a meal prepared and shared together as a communal unit. And this disconnect is dangerous. Not just physiologically and environmentally. But, culturally, psychologically, and behaviorally. Because, when we take our human hearts and merge them with machines, where does our love go?

I once took myself to a remote cottage in upstate New York for a week. Perhaps the word “cottage” is a bit too generous, as the structure was a tiny converted workman’s shed, with dirt and gravel for flooring, clans of spiders and stink bugs as roommates, and chickens for neighbors. There was no Internet, no computer, no TV, no landline, no people, but strangely, I did have cell reception. And as such, I relegated my mobile use to “emergencies only” (i.e. rabid racoon attack, black bear at my doorstep, rattlesnake in my bed). This required me to keep my phone turned off, hidden from plain sight, lest I trip over a goat while narrating my painful solitude to a friend on iMessage. 

On the first night, after sunset, I peered outside the window into … nothingness. No glow from a neighbor’s porch light, no twinkle from distant street lamps, no flash from passing car headlights. Just pitch-black nothingness outside. And me, alone, inside. 

It was terrifying. I tried to sit with the discomfort, with the fear, and the anxiety. I tried to read a book, but I couldn’t concentrate. I tried to write with pen on paper, but my eloquent words were blocked by my racing thoughts. I began to cry, then weep, then despair. So I turned on my cell phone, and I called a friend for support. She imparted great wisdom during that conversation, but one sentence has remained with me for years since. As I cried inconsolably, she said, “Alison, this is where you meet yourself.” 

And she was right. 

As Shakespeare wrote, “This above all, to thine own self be true.” Which means, do not engage in self-deception. But isn’t that what we’re all doing by living vicariously through our digital identities and cyborg fantasies? For how busy and productive we are, our world is becoming far too silent, save for the buzz of network servers, and the hum of mechanized devices. Between headsets, earbuds, microchips, and VR visors, we are isolating inward, instead of expanding outward. But, I’d rather have a good friend tease me for drinking too much coffee, than have a smart-bot remember which espresso roast I order. I’d rather feel heartbroken from losing a loved one, than never feel love to begin with. And I’d rather appreciate the value of presence than distract myself from the reality of absence. 

I’m not advocating that we all remove ourselves from society and recreate Thoreau’s Walden (although it’s ultimately worth it, if you try). But as we gaze down into an artificial blue light, instead of up into our companion’s eyes, we not only empty our lives of emotive connection, but we empty the love from ourselves. It’s up to each of us to reclaim our beating hearts before we are drowned out by digital silence.