Coincidence, I guess. Midway through the last book of Asimov’s robot trilogy, I happened to download Steve Paulson’s interview with Eric Klinenberg (7.7.13 broadcast: “The New Alone“).
I’ll get to Klinenberg in a moment.
The second book of the trilogy, Naked Sun, takes place several thousand years in the future on Solaria, one of 50 bucolic “outer worlds” that Earth-based explorers have colonized. Solaria has a population of only 20,000, a number strictly maintained for centuries, and each Solarian lives quite happily alone on a private estate hundreds or thousands of square miles in size. Highly specialized robot servants satisfy his or her every need.
Because the distances among the Solarians are so vast, they’ve grown unaccustomed to face-to-face contact. In fact, they loathe it. Holographic “trimensional viewers” enable them to lead rich social lives without ever being in the physical presence of other human beings. “Viewing” is commonplace, whereas “seeing” (sharing air space) occurs with great reluctance and only when all other options have been exhausted.
Asimov published his fictional account of Solarian society in 1957.
In 2013, NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg published Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.
According to Klinenberg, there were four million Americans living alone in 1950, which accounted for 9% of all American households. Today, 33 million Americans live alone, accounting for 28% of all American households. In urban areas, that figure is closer to 50%, the same percentage of Americans who are unmarried, up from 22% in 1950.
This “sea change,” as Klinenberg puts it, is being driven in large part by a rise in affluence. Sixty years ago, a much greater percentage of Americans lacked the financial wherewithal to shoulder household expenses without a partner.
Klinenberg interview clip
Increasingly therefore, solitude is a choice, not an expedient. Klinenberg reports that a significant number of the people he’s interviewed, when asked why they live alone, have told him they do so mainly because they can. Moreover, in nascent Solarian fashion, they tend to be heavy users of social media.
Jim Fleming’s interview with University of Toronto English professor Michael Cobb followed the Klinenberg segment. Cobb is the author of Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled, a book he wrote after getting fed up with the pervasive notion that living alone is a less than optimal state of being.
It seems strange to me that we could be so instinctively social, so hard-wired to pair-bond and reproduce, yet not universally hard-wired to cohabitate as well. At the same time, however, my Facebook allergy notwithstanding, I’m a perfect example of the demographic that Klinenberg and Cobb describe.
After 46 years of uninterrupted cohabitation, 17 of them living in sin, I found myself living alone in 2006. I’ve remained so ever since and, for the most part, I’m liking it. According to Klinenberg, that makes me statistically normal, and according to Cobb (or my brief exposure to him, anyway), it makes me part of a movement.
Maybe then, if there’s any room left at the end of our ever-lengthening alternative lifestyle initialism, I’ll get to join the LGBTQIAS community some day soon. The “S” will stand for “Solarian”, of course.