'Our future belongs to Nature' (LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)

February 14, 2024   6 mins

How St Valentine came to be associated with romance is disputed. Some suggest the third-century martyr’s feast “Christianised” a Roman fertility festival — but the first mention of his day in connection with love comes more than 1,000 years after his death, in Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules.

St Valentine’s is, in Chaucer’s telling, the day when the birds all find their mates, aided by a personified Nature. But the modern Valentine’s Day is less a moment for finding a mate than for celebrating those who already have one. What, then, of those still single? There are plenty of articles offering advice for coping on Valentine’s Day, suggesting that for some, it’s not a feast of smug coupledom but an annual reminder of loneliness.

And today, it’s not smug couples but lonely singles who are on the rise. This is the first Valentine’s Day since the US Surgeon General issued a public-health advisory warning that loneliness has reached epidemic levels. But loneliness reaches beyond America: single-person households are now a marker of wealthy societies across the world, and the only city that beats London for solo homes is Stockholm.

In the face of rising loneliness, growing numbers are seeking help in finding a mate. Unlike Chaucer’s birds, though, they’re turning not to “the noble goddesse Nature” but to technology — especially “social” media, and the online dating sites that now introduce more couples than real-world social networks.

It’s a poisoned chalice. For using digital platforms to make social connections is like repurposing a train carriage as a static home: you can do it, but you’re hacking something constructed to do the exact opposite. Without exception, the draw of digital devices and platforms is not their social but their antisocial nature: their capacity to liberate us from immediate reality and social context, in favour of worlds more tailored to individual preference. And while this is enticing to many, it’s not cost-free.

The cost is perhaps easiest to understand via a visually striking innovation: Apple’s Vision Pro augmented reality goggles, which launched a week ago. This device, which looks like a space-age sleep mask, projects digitally-generated displays onto whatever the user is looking at in the real world. The displays are visible only to the user, and manipulated with gestures.

After the launch, viral videos swiftly appeared, depicting users appearing to use the goggles while seated in a self-driving car — or even, in one example, while “walking” a Boston Dynamics robotic dog. And while those videos were staged, the collective reaction to the world they portend has, rightly, been queasiness. For watching a Vision Pro user is unnerving. The user sees an augmented reality; everyone else sees someone with eyes covered, responding in inexplicable ways to stimuli only they experience.

But Vision Pro is only the most recent and visually intrusive instance of a shift towards a culture in which custom realities take precedence over flesh-and-blood ones. For example, it’s long been normal, in the kind of well-off cities where one-person households are on the rise, for people to stride about talking apparently to no one. This behaviour was once associated with acute schizophrenia; today it’s more likely to mean that person is on a call, via a wireless headset. And if gesticulating at nothing or talking into thin air on the street is an extreme example of tech-enabled withdrawal from “IRL”, a less dramatic one is far more pervasive: smartphones.

These grant every user access to a tailored virtual world, complete with stimuli no one else can access, plus sentient others who talk back. And much as with Vision Pro or the AirPod phone call, the experience for those around them is exclusion. How do you reach someone who is withdrawing into a parallel world? The internet is (perhaps ironically) full of essays on how to talk to someone who won’t put their phone down. Evidence is mounting, too, that this collective retreat into individualised digital realities is corroding even established relationships: a third of married Americans report that their spouse is often on his or her phone when they would prefer to do something IRL as a couple.

How, in that context, is anyone supposed to form a new relationship? Evidently, people do — often, indeed, with the help of the internet. But while there are plenty of happy long-term couples who met online, studies suggest that these digitally-forged relationships are somewhat less stable and satisfying than those where couples met through friends. Even where it helps connect us, after a fashion, these connections seem often of a different nature — and sometimes less robust.

But what can anyone do? As each of us withdraws into our virtual worlds, so real-world socialising attenuates, and with it the scope for meeting people any other way.

Dating platforms take the risk out of flirting, while increasing the pool; and should the tech-enabled search for connection get too exhausting, we can use the same tech to step back from connection, thanks to the platforms that, for many, comprise a growing proportion of social interaction. No wonder the generation born since the internet became ubiquitous — Gen Z — is the loneliest in history, and are especially short on those “fringe friends” you see occasionally, and who, perhaps, might be the ones to introduce you to The One.

“Dating platforms take the risk out of flirting.”

These technologies don’t so much mediate the real world, then, as colonise and replace it — while offering an illusion of liberation from the constraints of IRL. In this light, it’s perhaps easier to understand the dismay that greeted the “silent disco” which took place last week in Canterbury Cathedral. Defenders have pointed out that this is a long way from the first time alcohol has been served in a church, while concerts and other events often happen in these spaces. But it wasn’t the music, the booze, or even the dancing that prompted anger: it was the machine-mediated escape from reality. Christians rightly sensed that this rendered the silent disco a disturbing parody of another kind of communion, more commonly celebrated in the same space.

In my experience as a (now very) ex-raver, the core of the rave experience is paradoxical: a Dionysiac celebration of complete freedom to “be yourself” without inhibitions, but at the same time also to be part of something bigger: the crowd as a single, sweaty entity, fused by the beat. In this sense, there are parallels with older pagan religious events; but what distinguishes a rave from the great many ecstatic dance traditions is that it has no spiritual component at all, beyond what individuals ascribe to it for themselves. Its sole purpose is to provide a kind of unity-in-atomisation.

What holds the “congregation” together for this hedonistic rite of individuality is the music, overwhelmingly loud, enveloping everyone — the music, and the DJ. And here, the indissolubility of a rave from its enabling machinery comes into view: for a DJ is a kind of cyborg celebrant, whose power is equal parts human agency and tech scaffolding. A rave wouldn’t be the same without a live human on the decks; but without huge speakers, lights, atmospherics and so on, it wouldn’t really be a rave.

The silent disco takes this ritual fusion of man and machine still further. Now, it’s not just the DJ who can’t function without tech. At a silent disco, the same goes for the crowd: you aren’t enveloped by the beat, unless you don the special headset. Indeed, for someone without the kit, a “silent disco” looks as strange as a Vision Pro user, just at scale.

This also renders communicants at the disco even more atomised than the crowd at a rave. Whereas ravers are wrapped in sound, they can at least talk to one another, albeit at a yell. But those at the Silent Disco can’t communicate without breaking digital communion. If you want to hear another person speak, you have to remove the headphones, which means you’re no longer sharing the same sonic space as the dancers. Now, you’re just one of those outside the machine’s magic circle, watching people spasm in response to signals that aren’t there for you.

If a silent disco in the birthplace of English Christianity elicits revulsion where, say, a theatrical performance or concert does not, this is because it’s not just a secular use of a sacred space, but a parodic one: a caricature of Holy Communion in which salvation from solitude comes not through physically sharing in the body and blood of God, but via a headset that grants access to machine-mediated unity. From the perspective of a faith grounded in the incarnation of God as Man, it’s hard to think of a word that describes this with sufficient force except “blasphemy”.

That the Anglican leadership cannot see this is troubling, to say the least. But perhaps this isn’t so strange, coming from bishops who shrugged and acceded to “Zoom church” in 2020 with barely a murmur; and who, for months on end, mouthed words about incarnation before a “virtual” congregation. Nor, perhaps, should we be surprised that many who make up these congregations have not, since Covid, re-materialised.

Thus it seems we’re becoming lonelier in direct proportion to how fully we embrace the digital illusion. I doubt it’s a coincidence that the first location to declare loneliness a “public health emergency” is a California county that includes part of Silicon Valley. But when even leaders in a Church founded on a theology of indissoluble matter and spirit embrace our collective tech-mediated withdrawal, what hope is there for the rest of us against its allure?

I don’t think there is an easy answer. Nor do I claim any special ability: like most, I find putting the phone down a constant struggle. But while it’s perhaps cold comfort, on Valentine’s Day of all days, there is one positive here. If tech makes us lonely, and humans are fundamentally social animals, it stands to reason that those who survive this cultural pinch-point in good enough shape to form relationships and have kids won’t necessarily be the smartest, the richest, or the most sophisticated. Rather, they’ll be those who value the human yearning for connection, culture, and an IRL future enough to outweigh the allure of digital realities.

The future, then, belongs to those who can resist the digital siren-song. In other words: much as in Chaucer’s time, our human future belongs to Nature, and to God.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.