How Big Tech Helped Cities Become an Incubator for the Greatest Currency of Our Age: Loneliness

by Sophie McKay

17 January 2020

The Collective

If 20th century artist Edward Hopper had been alive today it’s likely the solitary figures in his realist oil paintings would have been lit by the LED light of their smartphone screens. Pop in a few laptops and his most famous piece, Nighthawks, could be a scene from a modern metropolis almost anywhere in the world.

After all, cities have long been synonymous with loneliness. That said we are – if the reports are to be believed – currently in the grip of a particular pandemic. London is the loneliest city in Europe. Nine million people in the UK report being lonely often, with millennials considered the loneliest generation according to near daily think pieces. Yet the elderly and Gen Z also vie with those in their 20s and 30s in the loneliness stakes.

It is in this context that innovative new businesses have popped up around the world, marketing themselves as solutions to lonely city dwellers. In London co-living boldly presents itself as a path to happiness. Tipped as one of the rising areas of property investment the world over, it’s particularly established in the UK capital. 20% of all co-living spaces in Europe are in London and last year saw UK market leader The Collective pair with international developer DTZ Investors to raise £650 million to expand. Rent currently starts at £300 per week (£1300 per month), for which tenants get access to communal spaces, cleaning services, gyms and even in some cases a drip for their hangovers

Technology has compounded loneliness, with social media reducing face to face interaction; the gig economy and our increasingly solitary and time consuming work lives keeping us away from the people we love; and our free time spent glued to Netflix, tapping on our phones for a solo Deliveroo or contributing to the 1.6 billion swipes a day that Tinder amasses. Social media has even started to become aware of its role in loneliness – Instagram is now a platform where loneliness is fetishised and turned into commentary. Originally billed as the thing that would bring us together – Facebook’s original mission statement was, “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” – it seems that technology is pushing us apart. But its relationship with loneliness is more complex than that. Co-living is an example of how the loneliness epidemic is good for business, presenting new opportunities for the type of tech start-ups that contributed to it in the first place. 

“People have been lonesome for centuries but haven’t worried about it as much as we do today,” says Dr Susan Matt, professor and historian of emotions at Weber State University and co-author of Bored, Angry, Lonely, Stupid, written with Dr Luke Fernandez Professor at the School of Computing. “Companies, [from] telecommunications companies through to Silicon Valley, argue that if you’re not connected there’s something wrong with you.” 

Whereas previously we were more willing to accept loneliness as part of the human condition, recent years has seen loneliness become something pathologised. The word loner didn’t even exist until the 1940s, when its introduction implied stigma. We now see loneliness as something to be overcome and therefore something that marketers are able to sell us solutions to. We’re told that loneliness is more dangerous than smoking and scientists today are working on developing a pill to cure loneliness. Big tech has been able to capitalise on this, offering up digital technology as a way to further connection and stamp out lonely feelings. 

“People like Zuckerberg have continued this trend by claiming that online communication is a human right,” says Matt. “[With] Facebook [for example] saying that you’re going to have a subpar life if you’re not online and part of these networks.”

Digital technology brings another aspect to loneliness; one of comparison and expectation. We’re constantly viewing others’ lives and comparing ours to them. This is something which trickles down to the way apps are branded and marketed to us. But often the reality doesn’t match the image. Deliveroo for example is marketed as an app to be used socially, featuring images of friends eating together, yet underneath there are tales of dark kitchens and solitary, tired and struggling users who don’t have time to cook, let alone socialise. It can make us feel worse about our loneliness. 

“Loneliness is not something that has completely material origins. It’s not about how many friends you have, but often sparked by the discrepancy between the number of friends you have and the number you expect to have,” explains Fernandez.

This view of loneliness makes it potentially lucrative and the co-living market taps into this. Albeit only for a very specific lonely demographic; spaces like those in The Collective are not priced for everyone.

The increasing cost of living in the UK is challenging for many of the millennial demographic co-living targets. Side hustles have become normalised; one in five working millennials in the UK has more than one job and they’re still likely to be in debt. Co-living can seem like a very cynical solution to this state of affairs. 

“[Co-living companies are] giving the impression of something very egalitarian but in reality [it’s] a very expensive form of living,” says Matthew Stewart, architect and author at Westminster University. “If we look at the reasons we’re lonely – it could be because we can’t afford houses or reach these basic adult thresholds. [Co-living companies are] aware of why people may be lonely and unhappy but they’re not helping – they’re profiteering off it.”

Co-living has strong links to Silicon Valley. Californian co-living start up Tripalink was recently valued at $100 million and the world’s biggest co-living space is soon to be built in Silicon Valley.

Co-living and big tech companies often claim to be based on countercultural ideas. The ethos of “disruption” and “revolution” underpinning Silicon Valley’s ventures ostensibly comes from the revolutionary ideas of the 1960s, but in reality this is just a way to re-package conventional corporate values. 

“Counterculture is being commodified. It’s incredibly hard these days to have an interesting or socially experimental way of living. So now you have a commodified version of it instead, like co-living. And it sells a certain lifestyle – you co-live, you co-work – and the spaces are bland, the design is bland,” says Matthew Stewart.  

Loneliness has become a currency to profit off – something to be feared, avoided and solved with a high monthly price tag.

Co-living companies claim to be on a mission to solve loneliness, but instead the are perpetuating the commodification of an emotion which they have only a neutered, cynical grasp of. It is yet another an example of big tech appropriating radical ideas and presenting them as solutions to problems it has actively contributed to.

We must start to radically re-evaluate how we see loneliness, and to be more critical of the messages we receive from social media, in order to make it less easy for companies to capitalise on our feelings.  

Sophie McKay is a London based journalist and playwright. She focuses on social issues and technology. 

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