Technology, car dependency, suburbs and big cities, the vanishing of third places — It has all ripped community right down the middle.

It almost feels like we encourage distance over togetherness.

We quite literally did during the covid-19 pandemic. To me, standing 6-feet apart was symbolic of the space we already feel between our neighbour and us, spiritually and emotionally.

What has happened to us?

When my parents tell me about their childhood, it’s almost like they’re describing another world.

They tell me stories about all the children in the neighbourhood gathering at one person’s house and watching TV together. They tell me of a time when unexpected guests were welcomed and houses were kept clean at all times for such an occasion.

Now? We pretend we aren’t at home. We close the blinds. We don’t answer phone calls or texts because of anxiety. Seeing someone you know in public is categorized as a worst fear.

I still remember my time living in Pakistan. We frequently had guests over, and my parents encouraged us to go outside and play with the neighbours. The neighbours also felt a duty to watch over the children in the community. Even as a teenager, I stayed however long as possible after school to hang out with my friends. I think the big problem is that as we have gotten older, there are very little opportunities to interact with other individuals. If you're not attending a university or college, you're expected to be working. Yet with the rise of remote work, whatever opportunity adults did have to make connections with other adults have become obsolete.  

We’ve developed an aversion to real human contact.

According to a survey published by the health insurer Cigna, more than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feelings of being left out, being poorly understood and lacking companionship. Since 2018 when the survey was first conducted, there has been a nearly 13% rise in loneliness.

The Covid-19 pandemic only exasperated a way of living we’ve normalized over the last decade or so.

What’s causing the loneliness epidemic?

  1. Technology

Sometimes while driving down the road, I’ll see people walking and talking to themselves, only to realize seconds later that they have an airpod in their ear and they’re probably talking to a friend.

For some, this signifies the ways in which technology connects us between time and space.

For me, it’s a haunting reminder that there is more distance between us than there has ever been before.

When once we would have to invite people out to coffee dates or walks in the park to catch up, we can now speak to them without the added burden of making any effort to see them. Friendships don't require as much effort to maintain or keep anymore, and I wonder if we get the same fulfilment from our friendships if we never see our friends in real life.

Technology has increased feelings of anxiety, depression, and general sense of isolation. I believe that most people today suffer from anxiety because they are constantly surrounded by noise from technology – whether it's music, podcasts, TV shows. People are consuming too much information and it's keeping them on edge.

2. Big cities and car dependency

Densely populated cities allowed people to experience chance encounters and support local businesses with foot traffic.

As suburbs were created and housing moved further away from shopping districts — cities got bigger, leaving many areas without things like clothing shops, libraries, coffee houses and grocery stores within walking distance.

In his book ‘The Great Good Place,’ Ray Oldenburg stated that when an urban landscape is hostile to and devoid of informal gathering places, one may encounter people rather pathetically trying to find some spot to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

Sounds like a mall, which is exactly why they were created — to act as a sort of replacement walkable city crowded into a small building.

3. Vanishing third places

A combination of technology and car dependency has resulted in the vanishing of third places.

A third place is a place where community can gather without the pressure to perform a task. A place where people can meet others and spontaneous conversations and events can occur.

Examples include cafes, churches, parks, and plazas. Ray Oldenburg called these places “anchors of communities.”

Third places are scarce in the modern world. The ones that are left are extremely consumer-centric or work-oriented — like Starbucks or coworking spaces. Lingering is discouraged, while consumerism/ productivity is encouraged and even streamlined.

Third places have also been replicated online. Many may consider online platforms a “third place,” but the reality is that nothing can replace face-to-face communication and contact with another human being.

We’re all too familiar with this effect. In the last two years, students have been forced to study online rather than in the classroom. Although it was initially convenient, many students suffered from stress and anxiety brought on by social isolation.

A study conducted on the effects of e-learning on 753 participants found that 56% showed symptoms of depression, and 18% of the participants had suicidal thoughts. The most significant predictor of depression is high-stress levels and factors related to e-learning: isolation from friends and acquaintances, negative impact on the level of knowledge, reduced motivation to learn, and worsening grades.

The world is growing further and further apart.

A lack of religion also plays a fundamental role in the sense of isolation people feel. If you follow a specific religion you can bond with your community at specific locations over specific values.

As C.S Lewis stated, friendships are about "seeing the same truth."

Making friends requires mutual values and convictions – it requires you to have firm beliefs that you can use as pivoting points in your pursuit to meet others. Unfortunately, people suffer from a lack of understanding of their own values. We make friends over things like partying and drinking and then wonder why our friendships never go past the surface level.

In order to create deep and meaningful friendships, we need to be vulnerable enough to share the deepest parts of ourselves with another individual, and stick around while another individual does the same. We also need to make an effort to show up for our friends everyday. Too often people believe that friendships can survive even if one doesn't communicate for months, and while that may be true, friendships are much more fulfilling when there's an effort made to communicate with each other and do things together every once in a while.

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art.... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
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