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The Rise of Social Media and AI – Artificial Intimacy (counterfeit connection)

Notes from a conversation with Esther Perel and Brene Brown


Never before in human history have we encountered so much longing in society. The yearning, the quest, the sheer need for connection, for community, for transcending the burdens of the self that have never been heavier, for having freedom that is unprecedented, but also living with a tyranny of doubt and uncertainty that is unprecedented.


AI is the rise of Artificial Intimacy

Many of the experiences that we currently have on social media are pseudo experiences. They should give us the feeling of something real, but they don't.

For example: I am talking to you about something deeply personal, and you're answering me, uh huh, uh huh while scrolling on your phone. Or I reveal something online to you and you send me a heart of a thumbs up. And I should be feeling connected, open, vulnerable, but in fact you're there but you're not present and I'm feeling a certain kind of loneliness.


We call this ambiguous loss. Because instead of feeling connection with you, I am actually grieving. I feel like something is just not happening. Ambiguous loss is a term that was coined by Pauline Boss about grieving.

What happens when you confront the dilemma of the loss of someone who is actually there. and the impossibility of grieving that loss (unlike a death or divorce/breakup for instance). So you are there in sitting in front of me. I see you, but say you have Alzheimer's and you are psychologically or emotionally gone (this happened with my mother and it was really hard – her physical self was there but it wasn’t my mum). This is an impossible situation and really, really stressful.


Or you’re not really listening because you’re focused on something else you need to do.

Or you’re emotionally absent / traumatised/ dissociated/ shutdown (which I see a lot of because I am a trauma therapist - many people live their whole lives this way).


I can't really resolve this loss because in some ways you’re still present. Are you there or are you not there? This is what's happening in many of our interactions at this moment.

And that creates a particular kind of loneliness. It's not the loneliness of being alone.

It's the loneliness of being with people with whom you should not be feeling lonely, but in fact you are.


Another issue of living in a social media world (exacerbated by covid when we were forced into a contactless existence) is there is very, very little friction/ messiness/ mystery to get excited about. Real lives are messy, contradictory, full of unresolvable dilemmas. But that is not what we present online where you show a version of yourself that is perfect, untroubled, enviable. If we do break that rule (as Sinead o'Connor famously did) then you get ridiculed, ostracised or - somehow worse - the false sympathy from people who really don't care that much).

But if everything is supposed to be polished and glossed, then you don't get to experience experimentation, doubt, friction, conflict, that are part of what Terry Real calls ‘fierce intimacy’.


Modern loneliness masks as hyperconnectivity.


I can have a thousand virtual friends, but nobody to feed my cat or ring if I fall and need help.

Nobody to ask to go and pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, but a thousand people who are giving me likes and dislikes and all kinds of comments that are now becoming the foundation of my self esteem (especially for young women and girls whose brains are wired to compare with their peers).


And that's a different kind of loneliness. It's not about being physically alone. It's about being misunderstood, unseen, rejected, ostracized, all of that.

Online relationships require very little real vulnerability.

Real relationships require a ton of vulnerability, a ton of tension, a ton of friction and messiness. Bids for connection, missed bids for connections, circle backs, apologizing. And this isn’t it. So we are losing the ability to handle real relationships.


The commodification of Experience

Never before have we commodified and commercialized our personal experiences to such a degree that sometimes instead of living life, we're living experiences of which the value will only come once we've posted it.!


For example: Can we be at a concert and listen to the music without having to see through the phone and record it? Can we enjoy a meal out without posting a picture first?


The phone Is a vulnerability shield. not just on the personal level, but on a social level. It is our new body. It feels things, it consumes things instead of us.

Another example: if you happen to sit on on a train or a bus now there's not a single person lifting their head. And on occasion, if you catch one, they quickly go back down.

It's scary to make eye contact with people now.

So where is happenstance? Where is serendipity? Where is spontaneity?


These messages we're receiving on a daily basis say 'you're not important, not really'. In other words we don't matter, we don't belong. And that is the kind of loneliness, that is the kind of depression, feeling not worthwhile that starts to creep up on people that over time starts to make people feel anxious.


And now people are talking about a mental health crisis. And I'm thinking, is that really so? Is there a mental health crisis or is this a normal response to a crisis situation in our culture? Actually doesn't it make sense in a world of disconnect to feel lonely and miserable (see The Myth of Normal by Gabor Mate).


Because when we sit with people but we are busy on our phones, we basically are ghosting them in real life, we are denying them true connection and we are also denying ourselves.

When your attention is divided you cannot truly listen. You cannot pay attention. One of the things that makes us not feel lonely is when we feel that somebody deeply cares about who we are and what we are. And that means singular, focused attention, deep listening. Why? Because the listening is not just what happens to the person who listens. 


The quality of the listening also shapes what the person will tell.


In other words, the listener creates the speaker. The openness, the nature of what you divulge, how you connect, how vulnerable* you are. According to Brene Brown's research, vulnerability is the single most important quality for a well-lived life. And the phone has become our vulnerability shield.


Being able to connect with others is what gives life its richness and meaning and without it we are forced into defensive positions of you and me, them and us, polarisation in other words. Which we are seeing all too clearly online. You agree with me or you are stupid.

Hence cancel culture and the rise of gender idealogy, vax/anti-vax, etc etc.

We desperately need to learn how to reconnect with eachother.



*vulnerability here is defined as the open-heartedness, the willingness to connect without judgement of the person not as a weakness or disability.



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