The dangers of a digital life
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Seoul is a city of mirrored skyscrapers, drenched in neon. QR codes on billboards to order your dinner, and electric adverts on the subway that chase your train through dark, winding tunnels. A city of blisteringly fast internet, real-time data and wide-eyed cartoons, where the distinction between digital and offline life has melted away far more than anywhere else I have been.

Amid all of this, on a road road lined with small trees, is a small brick building. Called the Haja Centre, it is low rise and low tech compared with its towering neighbours; a friendly, colourful, tactile, mechanical place. When I visited, I saw a group of people sat in a circle playing guitars and others learning how to repair bicycles. There’s woodwork. In the most digital city on earth, it felt more… tangible than anywhere else. And there’s a good reason for that.

It is dedicated to helping a certain kind of patient: the hikikomori, or “the departed”. Hikikomori are recluses who have retreated from offline life and live entirely online. They are – most usually – men of around 30, though many start withdrawing when they are still adolescents and living with their parents. They don’t leave their homes, or even their rooms, for months or years on end.

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The Haja Centre is helping them take their first steps on the long journey from the bedroom back into society. With its ‘Come out and Play’ project, music is taught as a way of bringing them back, uniting them into groups, encouraging them to form relationships with a mentor and peers, and building self-esteem. Bike-mending is a way of encouraging them to have a tangible effect on something real.

One 18-year-old there started to tell me about his life. “I dropped out in high school” he said. He was 16. “After I dropped out, I had no real relationship or link to society or any other group. I just thought, ‘I am who I am’. I wasn’t in contact with any other person. One hundred per cent hikikomori.

He became nocturnal, and began to play online games more and more. “I’d play whenever I wanted a relationship with others. It’s connect and disconnect, that’s why it’s useful.” The game was MapleStory 2, a scrolling cartoonish fantasy role-playing game. “It was the one thing I could enjoy doing during this time.” He played it for 15 hours a day, every day, for two years.

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I had expected him to be downtrodden, downcast. But he was quite the opposite. He was effervescent, kinetic, with the easy extroversion of the class clown; leaping about in his chair, responding in different voices, and accentuating points with a chopping motion of his hand.

“Respect the choice of the hikikomori,” he continued. “The people who are behind are [considered] losers. The weak are blamed. ‘They don’t try hard’ or ‘It’s all their fault they are behind.’ Others try to accept this problematic social side. But hikikomori do not accept it. This is what we are turning away from.”

Each hikikomori has a different reason for having withdrawn from society. But each also has a similarity. A significant driver is the perception of shame and stigma. Most have suffered some kind of traumatic event: bullying, sexual abuse, a failure to graduate, a relationship breakdown, the loss of a job, a public humiliation. They feel the stigma of failure – of a society telling them that failure is their fault, that they haven’t worked hard enough. They are ashamed and they beat their retreat.

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But while culture is one half of the story, technology is the other. “The internet is like a black hole,” Akii, who runs the Haja Centre, told me later. “There is some kind of community. Some kind of fun and values. But it’s a false feeling. Your needs seem fulfilled, but they are not.” Hikikomori feel a push from society, but also a pull towards technology. Digital life provides a kind of gravity of its own, pulling people out of other orbits.

In 2018, for the first time, gaming addiction was listed as a mental health condition by the World Health Organization. It was a controversial and disputed diagnosis, but whether it is a discernible category or not, the reality is that the technology we use everyday are designed to be as gripping – dare I say, addictive – as possible. They are created, of course, to exert as much gravitational pull as possible.

Scattered throughout tech giants and start-ups are specialists who systematically apply psychological insights to the products, with the aim of maximising peoples’ engagement on the platform. The field is often called “persuasive technology”, and it was founded in 1998 by behavioural psychologist B. J. Fogg, with the aim of getting people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do.

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There was, Fogg argued, a new field that stood at the intersection of computer science and psychology, where persuasion and digital tech met. It uses a grab-bag of different disciplines: applied psychology, social cognitive theory, cognitive dissonance, dopamine studies. Some of the way that tech is designed is lifted straight out of gambling. Wipe down a refresh? It’s a one-armed bandit. They’re designed to confer unpredictable rewards; just like a roulette table, or blackjack. It’s hard to log off, especially if there’s no compelling reason to.

Akii has another term for hikikomori. One, he thinks better explains what is actually happening. He calls them ‘gravity-free youth’. Young people across South Korea have no “gravity, no pull that gives their lives meaning”. And they are unlikely to find it shut away in bedrooms. It’s hard to know how many there are, but Akii estimated between 30,000 and 300,000 in South Korea, and between 70,000 and 700,000 in Japan, in varying degrees of departedness.

But similar patterns – of joblessness, of social estrangement, of lives without meaning – are being seen across the world, especially in Europe, where unemployment rates among the young are creating the perfect conditions for young retreat. But also in America, as noted by Peter Franklin.

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Imagine, for a moment, what that might look like: a city full of people who don’t leave their house. A city of emptiness and silence, of darkened shopping malls, deserted roads. The only light comes from a million bedrooms, the only movement from the humming optic fibres sneaking under the quiet streets. It is deemed to be a public health crisis by the South Korean government. But it is an invisible one.

The push of society and the pull of technology is something, I think, that we all feel; it’s certainly something I felt. At the moments when you are at your most vulnerable, the internet can feel like society-on-tap. There’s always a forum to go on, there’s always a game to play. And in many cases the support and company you can find online is just as meaningful as anything you’d find anywhere else. But the society of the Internet alone, even when you around surrounded by billions of others, is a lonely place to be. The most networked age in history, is also one of the loneliest.