Why are we trying to banish loneliness from the world?
Collage by Marta Parszeniew
While Kickstarter was once a place where nerds went to secure funding for short runs of graphic novels, over time it's been transformed into a hive of social enterprise. Social engineering, even. Not an attractive term, but one that sums up what the likes of the Talk to Me London (TtML) organisers are into. They’ve raised £6,000 in a matter of weeks by promising to get Londoners to talk more. That’s right; rather than start with the easy stuff, like the water-powered car, they have jumped straight to level 19 and are fighting the final boss.
Londoners, their wide-eyed blurb explains, don’t appear to be the most chatty crowd. No. In fact, they seem to avoid conversation. Sometimes they play Fruit Crush on their phones while studying the ground, and apparently your average tube car bears little resemblance to a Ko Pha Ngan full moon party. “So often, we don’t talk,” one of the organisers explains in the promo video, like Neo finally seeing through the Matrix. “Why?”
It’s a valid question. After all, why don’t people regularly piss in the eyes of the elderly? Why don’t people normally grind their infant sons into a fine paste and spread them on buttered toast? Why don’t any number of implausible, uncomfortable and unneccesary things happen?
“Have you ever crossed paths with someone in London that you wanted to talk to?” the blurb expands. “Maybe the person was reading an interesting book. Maybe you just wanted to ask directions. Maybe they were crying and you wanted to see if they were OK. But you didn’t.”
In asking the question, it seems Talk to Me London have answered their own big question. Why don’t we talk to people reading interesting books? Because they are reading a book, and might as well have hung a "do not disturb" sign on the end of their nose. Directions? Because it is 2014, and if you're able to view Talk to Me London's Kickstarter page, you should have also been able to check Google Maps before you left the house.
And crying in the street? Well, when I cry in the street it is generally to do with a vast range of historical, psychological and deeply personal problems that cannot be answered by a stranger turning to me and asking me if I'm alright. I am crying in the street – it's pretty obvious I’m not, and it should be obvious that the remedy isn’t a patronising "there-there" from a random. Unless you are prepared to become a registered pyschotherapist and adopt me as a patient for upwards of two years, finding me crying in the street is an invitation to go about your business and let me get on with crying in the street. We all have to walk the same streets. Good. But that has little bearing on how much we should be involving ourselves in each other’s lives.
And this is the problem with a lot of what Talk to Me London proposes. It seems based on the greeting card maxim that strangers are just friends we haven’t met yet. Which is perfectly true: Strangers are definitionally friends we haven’t met yet, because they aren’t friends. Why aren’t they friends? Because no one has put in the necessary 30 hours of contact, trust-building, slang development and life-sharing that might turn them into a friend.
The Talk to Me London Kickstarter promo video
We all spend a lot of time talking to semi-random humans anyway, and most of them are relatively undifferentiated blobs of epithelial cells who live in houses, drive cars and shop at Tesco. They only start to reveal the bits that are unique or valuable through a gradual process of de-layering. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it serves as a way to re-emphasise why people don’t talk – because we can all quite happily acknowledge that everyone else on the 135 bus deserves the right to life and as much aisle space as is comfortable, but they don’t plug into our own stories in any useful way, do they? People are getting things done.
A lot of people in London have probably left other places to come to the sort of place where they can get things done. New York is sometimes referred to as the city where Americans go to get away from Americans, and London occupies much the same purpose here: the reason we have been magneted to it is often because we wanted to find that narrow range of people who are actually like us and, conversely, to spend less time with the broad range of meat-patties who are not.
The idea that we’re all straining at the gills to start chatting to randoms is in itself a worrying sign of society’s obsession with busying us up. We’ve all had the fight club spiel about junking around buying stuff you don’t need (via jobuhate). But beyond even that, we are increasingly living in a world where being alone is seen as aberrant behaviour. The scariest phrase in the English language? "He was a quiet man who kept himself to himself."
The 21st century will not be content until we are IM-ing, DM-ing and Pinteresting ourselves into perfect relevance. The screaming noise of banal chatter from people who are pushing the pedal to get a pellet of emotional validation is what we’re told should be the norm. Be around people. Go out and party on Friday night and then do it again Saturday night and then watch Homeland on a Sunday night and share your relevant opinions with other relevant opinion-spores so that no one will ever have to confront the fact that they came into this world on their own, and that they will leave it on their own.
Of course, somewhere in between, if you are lucky, you may occasionally trip across the tightrope of someone’s eyes and play a little in the splash-pools of their soul – but this is not anyone’s default state. Nor is it something that we can all access all the time. Yet, ever-more, we are defining silence and aloneness as a pathology to be banished. We can be cured only if we invite enough noise and babble into our lives to choke out that horrible whining little voice inside us that is us. Bloat up on talk, and you will never have to introspect, you will never have to hear a tick of fear or sadness inside the organism.
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said Blaise Pascal. And it’s never been more true. From the “Cheer up, it might never happen” brigade to the “Why you so quiet?” people, there’s a certain breed of human who takes it as an article of faith that anyone who is keeping their own counsel is "being anti-social", a crime punishable by not being regarded as a fully paid-up human being. TtML believes we all are thirsting after short bursts of conversational ping-pong. But really, the only thing you might learn out of that is exactly how similar we all are.
If you want to live in the deepening groove of mediocrity, get busy, because – in truth – history belongs to the daydreamers, not the social butterflies. Newton didn’t invent gravity while jawing it up in a Holborn tavern. Wordsworth didn’t get the inspiration for Upon Westminster Bridge while involved in a Sorkin-style walk-n-talk through Waterloo with Robert Southey and Coleridge. Relativity came from the mind of a Swiss patent clerk staring out the window, not from the ones laughing aggressively at the water cooler. And Crick’s daydream of the double-helix of DNA wouldn’t have existed if his wife had constantly been nattering to him about the next big twist in Game of Thrones.
These were the acts of people who found the space in their lives to get silent. In Amsterdam the other week, they introduced the world’s first "restaurant for solo diners" – Een Maal – where no one is allowed to eat with company. That it has taken this long to get to the solo dining starting line, despite the fact that many people are alone when hungry, suggests the depth of thing to be overcome. Stillness is the move. Loneliness is beautiful. People are fine, but they are not the only thing this world has to offer.