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Book Review:
Loneliness has a major impact

The Lonely Century

By Noreena Hertz, 2021

I highly recommend Noreena Hertz's book, The Lonely Century, which is a lengthy discussion of the impact of loneliness on the physical and mental health of persons of all ages, and of social practices that contribute to loneliness in developed countries.


Chapter 7 of the book, "Alone at Work," contains information every child welfare caseworker, supervisor and manager should be aware of, and keep in mind when organizing work and the workplace. Key points include: 


  • Globally, 40% of office workers say they feel lonely at work. 

  • Loneliness in the workplace is strongly associated with turnover, and with intent to leave, one of the best predictors of turnover. 

  • Large open office work spaces commonly lead to employees who feel alienated from each other. Open- office work spaces frequently lead to social withdrawal. 

  • "Hot desking" practices in which employees reserve desks a day at a time and do not have a desk of their own increase feelings of alienation from others. 

  • Working from home and other types of remote working "risks making worker loneliness significantly worse." 

  • "As many as 40 percent of workers report that communicating with colleagues over email makes them "very often or "always" lonely. 

  • Some staff discover that spending large amount of time on computer at home leads to an atrophy of social skills. Some people report increased difficulty having a conversation in person, or "reading" faces. 

  • " ... most companies that successfully deployed remote working before the pandemic were ones that circumscribed the amount of days an employee worked remotely."  It appears from initial studies that the optimal work from home time is one and half days a week. 

  • Personal contact has a greater effect in strengthening relationships and reducing loneliness than on- line contact. 

  • Employee breakfasts and lunches build the social cohesiveness of units and offices. According to Hertz, "Eating together is one of the easiest ways of building a greater sense of community and team spirit .." Any supervisor who encourages employees to eat lunch at their desk, or eat lunch quickly in a private space, or skip lunch altogether, to increase efficiency is poorly informed , and is doing harm to the morale of the workforce. Any manager who goes further and actively discourages non- work related social interaction is actively harming their staff. This is managerial malfeasance. 

  • Organizations that want to decease loneliness must recognize and reward instances of kindness, cooperation and collaboration among their staff.  For example, an organization can allow employees to nominate a fellow employee for exemplary behavior in helping others in the workplace, and reward winners every quarter with a $500 bonus.

  • Small initiatives that recognize outstanding performance can have a dramatic positive effect on staff morale. The ability to bestow recognition and small rewards for positive actions/ performance is a type of interpersonal wealth at every manager's disposal. 

  • Employers could provide a number of paid "care days" for caseworkers to allow participation in their children's lives at school, or for community service. 



Hertz tells the story of a Japanese company which gave its employees five consecutive Fridays of paid leave and $940 for a vacation. "The results were astounding, Hertz asserts. ."  Absenteeism fell by 25% and productivity increased 40%, she states.  

Child welfare offices have an urgent need to attract qualified applicants and hang on to experienced staff in jobs that take at least 2 years to learn to a reasonable level of competence. To achieve these goals, organizations must create working environments where employees want to stay, rather than take the exit door at the first opportunity.  The way to do this is by increasing social support, per Hertz's suggestions, and reduce loneliness by learning something from the pandemic re the importance of offices, personal contact and socially cohesive units and offices. 

Chapter 8 of Noreena Hertz's outstanding book, The Lonely Century (2021) contains information regarding innovative artificial intelligence technology that is (by turns) appalling, alarming, in- between or almost too good to be true. Anyone who wants to understand the rapidly developing children's mental health crisis in the US and other developed countries should read Hertz's book. In the meantime consider he following: 


Almost too good to be true: 


"In 2017 a refurbished ATM christened BlessU-2 was introduced in Wittenburg, Germany to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Squat and square, its metal eyeballs staring dispassionately back at you, instead of cash it now dispenses religious blessings. At the time of writing, more than ten thousand people have received its blessings, in seven different languages."  In future years, I can imagine the possibility of a reverse Turing test in which candidates for the priesthood or Protestant ministry compete in a test of the confidence they inspire in parishioner  with a humanoid spiritual advisor whose empathetic behaviors and speech have been confirmed in market research.  


In this category, I would be derelict if I failed to mention Spike Jonze's movie, Her ( 2013) in which a lonely young man played in a memorable performance by Joaquin Phoenix, develops a romantic relationship with his smart phone's Alexa, an AI entity who is wonderfully emotionally responsive until she  it) loses interest in the Phoenix character, possibly because his responses have become too habitual ( automated?). His AI intimate begins to be unresponsive to requests and entreaties, again a clever example of an AI passing a Turing test for romantic unreliability -- per her human counterparts. Phoenix asks his Alexa:  "Have you become involved in another serious relationship?" to which she replies, "Yes, about 660"  or some such number).  This is one of the all time best endings in a science fiction movie. At the time, the premise of the movie sounded ridiculous to some viewers, but almost a decade later, it sounds feasible. And why stop at 600 when a single AI could service the romantic needs of thousands, even tens of thousands of people?  It may even be possible for academic researchers to conduct large quasi -experimental investigations of romantic strategies ((e.g. "don't be either too available or unavailable," and arriving at an ideal romantic longing ratio using a single AI Alexa! 


In between


Hertz is quite exercised that some large companies have begun using "Algorithmic pre- hire assessments" instead of in- person interviews with job candidates. In what is already a multi billion dollar business job candidates are assessed through a computerized video interview. This "emotional AI" rep "reads" job candidates " by analyzing their  lexicon, tone, cadence, and facial expression taking into account as many as twenty -five thousand data points." Every gesture, every expression or word is analyzed through a mysterious algorithm. The company that developed and sells this software claims that retention rates and job performance are "significantly higher than average." It's possible Hertz is sour on this emotional intelligence because the AI rejected her job application, without giving her a good reason such as "you were faking the interview for the purpose of writing a book." I have mixed feelings regarding this approach to hiring after being made aware of studies ( through reading women magazines in the dentist's office) that most interviewers make up their mind re a job candidate within one minute or less, often without having asked a single question, based on a brief period of introductory chitchat  ("how is your day going?" or "did you have trouble finding parking?" ) It seems that Daniel Kahnemnan's "System 1" is highly active in job interviews. Anyone who's ever taken part in hiring panel knows that interview question rating forms are phony baloney. For this reason, I'm not as critical of this AI application as Hertz. An algorithm, even one that is not transparent, might be better than a quick "like or don't like" reaction to a job candidate based on a few seconds of pleasantries.  


Hertz is distressed that in journalism, "A third of content published by Bloomberg News is now written by "robot reporters," bots that whiz through financial reports and use algorithms to arrange the most relevant information into a readable news story in minutes."  I admit being a bit alarmed when I first read about bot reporters, but then consider some of the alternatives. e.g. Fox News updates. According to Hertz, in December 2019,  "the BBC used machine generated journalism to write nearly 700 election result stories for its website." The Associated Press has begun to do the same in sports reporting and stories re natural disasters, Hertz asserts.  


Given that corporations aim to please, we can look forward to a time in the near future when software is designed to fit ideological commitments, using rules such as, "ignore any factual information that is not consistent with X political views," and "repeat content consistent with x views," and for bot right wing newscasters, "sneer into camera when referring to liberals or leftist zealots," and for leftist news shows "look despairing when reporting on opinion polls of the Trump base." 




Some companies such as Amazon (always on the cutting edge of abusive practices) have begin to use technology to surveil the workforce. For example,

 at Bank of America a Humanyze biometric ID badge collects data on an employee every sixteen milliseconds. Hertz states: "Conversations are recorded, so too are his movements: the angle of his chair, the amount he talks, his tone of voice.  By analyzing all these data points on multiple ..( employees) across the firm, his employers hope they can identify those habits .. that make for productive employees." "Meanwhile Amazon recently won two patents for a wristband that can monitor every movement of its wearer, with the capacity to vibrate when it senses a worker has stepped out of line." Hertz comments: "These are not exceptional stories ... User activity monitoring  (UAM) .. was on track to be a 3,3 billion dollar industry" before the pandemic. Now, with the dramatic increase in working at home due, in part, to the pandemic, the growth of UAM has been greatly accelerated."  Hertz call this 'Surveillance Capitalism," but I have another description that includes several F words with an uplifted finger to corporate America. Apps such as WorkSmart " constantly score remote workers on "focus" and "intensity," using screenshots, application monitoring and keystroke tallying. WorkSmart workers "even have their photo taken every ten minutes to ensure they're staying on task." 


Some companies are using surveillance technology to monitor employees health and health related behaviors, "granting points for good behavior" such as taking lots of steps and standing rather than sitting. In an interesting twist on performance measurement, Bridgewater Associates, a large hedge fund company, uses "an app called Dots to rate each other in real time on more than one hundred traits ... "Monitors display every participants "dots" on the wall during meetings ..." One can imagine negative dots for activities such as yawning, frowning, falling asleep or staring at another employee of lesser rank with a lustful eye, whereas multiple dots amounting to a line could be given for smiling and nodding when agreeing with the head of the department or visiting expert. The possibilities seem unlimited. 




Developed countries, not just the US, are on the verge of some appalling possibilities that are still mostly found in TV series, movies or novels, but which really do exist and have the potential to transform modern societies in unpredictable ways. in the next few decades.  Hertz comments that "In 2017,  a Wisconsin tech firm called Three Square Market inserted microchips into the hands of more than fifty employees. Now chipped employees can use their hands as contactless ID cards..." The TV series "Severance" is based on the idea of severing the memory of employees at work from their off- work memories, and a number of science fiction writers have imagined a world in which children cannot compete in the educational meritocracy unless they are "chipped" in a way that increases their IQ. In fact, there is already the equivalent of such a chip; it's called social class. Genetic engineering is on the way, with unimaginable consequences. Some AI experts have become famous in the past two decades through books which seriously maintain that there are persons alive today who will live to be several hundred years old through use of tiny microchip devices that monitor vital signs and head off potential life- ending events. Hopefully, these prophets did not die during the pandemic, though it's possible grandiosity can be fatal and there is no known vaccine. Some neuro- scientists believe it will soon be possible to technologically enable "lucid dreaming" which many ancient peoples believed was a source of shamanistic power.  How might this work? A person has an ugly argument with someone regarded as an enemy and concludes, i.e., It's him or me."  He/ she sets an intention  to dream about the enemy, and uses technology to alert the body and mind to REM sleep in which dreaming frequently occurs. The technology also reminds the dreamer of her/ his intention. The enemy is punished during the lucid dream. Shamans were widely believed to have acquired such powers through onerous ordeals, but what if dreamers could buy the software, "Lucid Dreaming?"  


Perhaps it's foolish to worry about such outlandish dystopian futures when humans already have nuclear weapons and are on the downhill path to a 3-4 degree centigrade increase in global temperature by end of the century. There sill be no brave new world when Siberia is wine country and large parts of the earth are uninhabitable.  

-- Dee Wilson

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