Americans Were Lonely Long Before Technology

But tech has changed how we feel about it.

A woman looking bored and lonely next to an old-timey radio.
Photo illustration by Slate Photos by George Marks/Retrofile RF and Bet_Noire/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Excerpt adapted from Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings About Technology, From the Telegraph to Twitter, by Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt, published by Harvard University Press.

We’re in the midst of a “loneliness epidemic,” they warn—and many blame it on social media, suggesting it isolates individuals even as it promises to connect them. Health experts claim the lonely are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and early death. Some neuroscientists are now working on a “loneliness pill.”

This alarm contrasts sharply with the way earlier generations regarded loneliness. Eighteenth- and 19th-century Americans often felt lonely, but they were less worried about the feeling. They had more modest expectations about the number of friendships they should have and considered loneliness an inescapable part of the human condition.

During the 20th century, however, new technologies—from the radio to the Bell telephone system to today’s social media—and new psychological theories transformed individuals’ expectations about loneliness and connection. Tracing this history allows us to see that Americans’ emotional lives have changed dramatically over the past 200 years—and that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are only the latest technologies of many to have reshaped Americans’ psyches.

To grasp how much loneliness has been transformed, one needs to recall how markedly different it was for earlier Americans. In the 18th century, many Americans believed that their lonely condition was divinely ordained. Rebecca Dickinson, a Massachusetts spinster, described her circumstances as “dark and lonesome.” But she ultimately believed her aloneness was “the will of god.” In the 19th century, similar sentiments prevailed. William Alger, in his 1867 book The Solitudes of Nature and of Man; Or, the Loneliness of Human Life, wrote, “There is more loneliness in life than there is communion. The solitudes of the world out-measure its societies.” Black American singers put such thoughts to music in “Lonesome Valley,” which eventually became popular across the U.S. Its lyrics reminded, “You gotta walk that lonesome valley/ You gotta go there by yourself.”

Secular writers also addressed the problem of aloneness, suggesting true insight required solitude. Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated “self-reliance,” declaring, “We must go alone.” His neighbor Henry David Thoreau concurred, believing it best to live away from the “post-office … the meeting-house, the school-house, the grocery … where men most congregate.”

Yet even as Americans taught themselves to endure loneliness, technologies were emerging that promised to relieve and reshape it. When the telegraph was first demonstrated in 1844, observers euphorically declared that God had ordained its creation in order to join people and nations together. Some thought it might alleviate loneliness. In 1852, Elizabeth Stuart wrote her son, “Oh, if I could only on Telegraph wires be seated in that dear little dining room between you & Kate, & talk over all things, how my heart would be gladdened.”

However, the high prices of telegrams did not permit such easy connection. To send a telegram over the transcontinental wire cost between $5 and $6 in 1861 (at least $150 in 2019 dollars), while a 10-word message from New York to London cost $50 in 1866 ($816 today). In an age when the average industrial worker took home less than $2 per day, this was a high price to pay.

Because of its cost, 19th-century Americans often thought the telegraph to be of little use in ending loneliness. It might give access to the rest of the world, but many were not convinced it was worth using. As Thoreau observed, “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

In fact, in its early years, some resented the telegraph, finding it at best irrelevant and at worst a threatening intrusion into their lives. In the mid–19th century, a telegraph mast “on the Iowa shore at Keokuk stood near the cabin of a crusty old pioneer who was much annoyed by the humming of the wire. One night during a high wind, the noise became insufferable to him; he sprang out of bed, seized his ax, and after an hour or more of hard chopping, laid the mast low.” This was not uncommon in the early years of telegraphy. Wires were cut; “poles were felled.” And in some parts of the country, people accused the telegraph of spreading cholera over the wires.

Initially, the telephone provoked similar reactions—telephone poles were also sabotaged. But resistance dissipated. Yet even when Americans adopted these inventions, they used them relatively infrequently compared with modern habits. By 1927, Americans received on average a local call every 1½ days, a toll call roughly every 40 days, a telegram every six months and 23 days, and an overseas cablegram every eight years. These rough estimates suggest our great-grandparents had more modest expectations about contact with the larger world. Certainly they do not seem to have thought constant communication with people farther afield was worth paying a fortune for.

These expectations changed dramatically, however. In the early 20th century, salesmen promised to end loneliness. A 1912 Nebraska Bell ad claimed the phone “banishes loneliness,” while a 1909 ad warned that those who didn’t install telephones would become “more isolated—cut off … ‘out of things.’ ”

Phonographs and radios promised similar benefits. In 1906, the National Phonograph Company claimed “you can’t be lonesome if you own an Edison.” In 1935, Arvin Radio crooned that a car radio “keeps your spirits high. Instead of driving away from your friends of the air, you’ll take them with you.”

Such ads implied technology could cure loneliness. Some, like a Brooklyn woman whose husband was in a sanitarium, were convinced: “I consider radio the most essential piece of furniture as thru months of loneliness. … I have played it, sang with it, and kept my spirits up … ”

But the technologies’ limitations also were soon apparent. Dorothy Johnson recalled how radio’s arrival in her Montana town made solitude unendurable: “Listeners became addicts, so accustomed to having sounds of any old kind coming into the house that they were nervous when it was quiet.” By 1942, a reporter claimed radios had created a “hysterical need of constant noise and diversion as a means of escape from solitude.”

Worse, many began to blame themselves for feeling lonely. Twentieth-century Americans heard repeatedly that their social isolation and business failures were due not to the inherent sorrow of the human condition or divine will, but to their inability to develop a likable self. Success writers told aspiring businessmen that to prosper in the corporate world, they must cultivate vast networks of friends.

Just as such views were spreading, a new word was taking root in the 1940s: loner. Loner carried negative connotations, labeling those who sought solitude as abnormal. Whereas 19th-century Americans would have understood loners (though they wouldn’t have called them that), 20th-century Americans regarded them as maladjusted to a society that prized constant cheerful friendliness. Together, these pressures made solitary individuals feel out of step with the larger culture. Perhaps they were responsible for their own isolation because they had not cultivated the right personality traits or purchased the right products.

The preoccupation with loneliness grew after World War II. In 1950, David Riesman’s co-authored bestseller, The Lonely Crowd, represented Americans as paradoxically outgoing and yet profoundly lonely—unfulfilled by their shallow friendships and their glad-handing.
Instead of assuaging loneliness, these behaviors compounded it.

Others blamed American loneliness on technologies of suburban life—TVs and cars. Bill Miller recalled how his Oregon neighborhood changed with television’s arrival. “The reason why you don’t know your neighbors is because you got television, you got air conditioning and your homes heated so nice, you don’t have to worry about going outside. You stay in there, and you see them at the store, and go ‘Hi neighbor,’ and that’s about it. You may know their first name, but you don’t know their last.”

If television was perceived to be fracturing neighborhood life, the car brought other concerns. Autos encouraged people to live at greater distances from the places they worked, shopped, and gathered for civic association. Increased time in autos often came at the expense of more communal activities.

Consequently, the drumbeat of discussion about loneliness grew louder. In 1970, Philip Slater’s bestseller, The Pursuit of Loneliness, indicted Americans’ individualistic lifestyles and the technologies that supported them. According to Slater, American families believed “each member should have a separate room … a separate telephone, television, and car … We seek more and more privacy, and feel more and more alienated and lonely when we get it.”

Simultaneously, psychologists began to make loneliness a formal discipline of study. In 1978, a loneliness scale was developed. Conferences on loneliness were spun up; academic theories about its causes proliferated.

Clearly a new “loneliness industry” was emerging as an outgrowth of 20th-century consumer culture. Building contractors, automobile dealers, and appliance salesmen were happy to sell their wares to Americans searching for the good life. When their isolating side effects became manifest, consumers could then turn to psychologists’ therapeutic tonics.

Americans could also purchase technologies marketed as antidotes to isolation. Communications companies continued to play on fears of loneliness and hopes for connection. Bell Telephone reminded consumers, “A telephone call from out of town takes the blues out of the night,” and more famously encouraged them to “Reach out and touch someone.”

Writ large, these trends illustrate the paradox of American progress and hedonic adaptation. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg suggests, more Americans can afford privacy and are consciously choosing to live alone. Even with such living arrangements, Claude Fischer argues, Americans are as connected as they have ever been. But despite these trends, many still worry about loneliness.

How can this be? One answer comes from the loneliness theories psychologists created in the 1970s, which hypothesized that it was impossible to overcome the emotion until people bridged the difference between the number of connections they had and the number they desired. If modern Americans really experience loneliness this way, then it is not enough to have more social connections than ever before. What matters is whether people have as many friends as they believe they should, for the loneliness industry has ramped up expectations.

Modern technology has raised hopes for constant sociability and simultaneously heightened worries about loneliness. When Mark Zuckerberg helped create Internet.org in 2013, he claimed to be doing so to provide internet access to the billions on Earth still lacking it. He explained, “We just believe that everyone deserves to be connected, and on the internet.” Without discounting the nobility of Internet.org’s mission, it is clearly financially beneficial to Facebook’s founder to emphasize the human need for connection.

Indeed, Facebook vice president Andrew Bosworth declared, “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.” This idea—that more connections are always desirable—which Silicon Valley self-consciously spreads, exacerbates anxieties about loneliness. It does so especially when loneliness is understood as a discrepancy between the number of connections one has and the number one desires. Of course, communication companies have long thrived on this discrepancy. But today’s companies raise expectations further and have turned internet connectivity into an entitlement—a desire that tolerates no limits. For how much connection is enough? The implicit answer seems to be that one can never have enough.

As Americans have come to worry about and measure loneliness all the more, their tolerance for aloneness has diminished. New devices as well as changing views of human psychology have undermined the capacity to experience it as something positive—that is, as solitude. Google Ngram tellingly reveals the declining use of the word solitude, just as use of the term loneliness has increased. Because Americans employ the concept of solitude less frequently than they once did, they are increasingly incapable of distinguishing the feeling from loneliness. As they have relabeled and reinterpreted the experience of being alone, changing it from a common, potentially positive state to an inherently negative one, they have also changed the actual feelings that go with aloneness.

Americans have walked lonesome valleys and endured lonely crowds. They have celebrated solitude beside Walden Pond and then, in a new century, turned their backs on loners and attempted to change the study of loneliness into a science. Where they once thought of loneliness as inevitable and unremarkable if also uncomfortable, today they see it as a dangerous emotion and a signal of embarrassing neediness. Modern technologies have made social connection look easier than ever, and therefore the absence of such relationships has become all the harder to bear. Unlike earlier generations who believed loneliness was inescapable, many today believe it to be curable, a condition that can be mitigated by phones and computers. However, when those tools fail to bring the happiness, warmth, and conviviality they promise—and to some degree, that failure is inevitable, given our outsize expectations—Americans have come to blame themselves.

Read Rebecca Onion’s review of Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid.

Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid book cover
Harvard University Press

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.