In the troubling times ahead it will be worth remembering the difference between loneliness and solitude. Though many of us will have to make the difficult decision to be physically isolated from our loved ones, there is no need for us to be socially isolated too. Google Chrome have even announced a ‘Netflix Party’ feature which allows subscribers to watch films together through the browser.
But, as David Vincent shows in A History of Solitude, people have enjoyed physical isolation while remaining socially networked long before the internet. It’s been a dominant feature of the modern world at least since the invention of the postal service and the telegram. In this sense the smartphone has not been a disruptive innovation but rather the culmination of a journey through correspondence, print, telephone, film and television. Earlier generations could only dream of a device that allowed the individual at will to be absent and present in company, apart from society but instantly in contact with selected groups and individuals.
As the current crisis unfolds who knows what new technologies of social connection and physical distancing will emerge?
David Vincent is Professor Emeritus of History and former Pro Vice Chancellor of The Open University.