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BEING ALONE AND NOT FEELING ALONE

Will technology connect with our personal wellbeing?


︎︎︎COLIN VAN DEN BOSCH / SOCIETY
We are currently in a loneliness pandemic. People are more than ever at home and alone, this is the new standard. How will we evolve and not always depend on other people’s physical company? We are constantly breaking stigmas around being alone and finding new ways to rethink our ‘normal’.


Being alone can for me sometimes feel like a relief, not thinking about others and just focus on yourself in that moment. Last year, 26 percent of the Dutch population aged 15 and over reported they sometimes felt lonely. Single people and single parents are more likely to feel lonely than couples and children living at home. One-third of the over-75s sometimes feel lonely while 9 percent say this is very often the case.

While some people like being alone, others don’t. Because of this, scientists, innovators and body architects are creating ways to reshape the meaning of being alone. The forced social isolation in 2020 because of Covid-19 plays a big role in being alone. How are people shaping a new normal around being alone?     


THE OXYTOCIN MACHINE

Some say that the feeling of being alone can be cured by touch. Body architect Lucy Mcrae has different ideas: her works combine science, technology, art and design, using the body to explore how the different fields can both merge and progress.



‘Hugging causes a chemical reaction in the brain’




In 2019 she designed a ‘compression carpet’. This invention mimics the positive effects of a human hug. The machine tightens around the body as it deflates, the device aimed to assist in altering the expression of oxytocin — a hormone released in the brain responsible for building trust and pair bonding. Touch is the first sense developed in the womb and remains to be a complex sense and phenomena. When you are hugged, the hormone oxytocin is released in the brain. Oxytocin is responsible for promoting feelings of love and well-being.


The compression carpet only works if someone else is turning the crank on the machine to apply more pressure. So, in my opinion the compression carpet has great potential to help people who are feeling alone. But in this stage, it’s only reminding people of the fact that they are alone.




ARTIFICIAL COMPANY


Friendship helps protect the brain and body from stress, anxiety, and depression. Plus, the ability to choose who these friends are, means that we can surround ourselves with positive people. Anyone who has been through a significant milestone in their life will know how good it feels to be able to share with those closest to you.


But is it possible to create friendship with a robot or better said just a voice? England and Sweden are currently experimenting with AI (artificial intelligence) in multiple elderly homes. The academic study uses Google home devices and gave these to different seniors, the devices were programmed with a new and improved version of AI. This new version learns from hearing new information and also reminds you to take your medicine etc.


The experiment got mixed results, for some elderly it’s quite difficult to talk to a speaker, this is also a generation that didn’t grow up with technology like the new generations.  But some are definitely keeping the Google home device.


‘I was so surprised… it was such fun!’


“I thought at first it was a sign of insanity, speaking to a little thing like that and him talking back!” says 92-year-old J. Winward when he first tested the smart speaker. He was one of the participants from England. “I was so surprised… it was such fun!” he says, explaining that after the experiment he still uses the smart speaker. He asks the speaker for news, weather updates, audio books and even crossword puzzles clues. “It keeps me sane, because it’s a lonely life when you lose your partner after 64 years.”


The Home Google device is a great way to keep people company, elderly have difficulties talking to a speaker because they aren’t really used to it. The younger generation is used to AI in phones, tv’s and even cars. So, it would be a great help to people who don’t like being alone and are open to the idea of an artificial companion. 


BEING ALONE IS NOT LONELINESS 

The good thing that has come because of Covid-19 is the discussion and recognition around loneliness. Elderly people are the most affected group, this was also the case before the pandemic. But there’s light in the end of the tunnel because numbers show that people are more and more connected, not in person but online. Technology is being accepted in groups that were first skeptical about contact through technology. There are lots of great innovations that will help a lot of people in the future, but we have to look out for one another. And accept that being alone is not the same as loneliness.


But let’s be honest, how cool would a hugging machine in your home be?

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