Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Olivia Tsang: Technology Confining Humans To Boxes

In Japan there is a phenomenon called NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), also known as hikikomori. The literal translation is “pulling inward” or “withdrawal.” The term refers to the condition as well as recluses who withdraw from all social life with varying degrees of extreme isolation. In some cases, hikikomori continue their lifestyle for 10 years. Typically, they will be unemployed with complete reliance on their parents for financial support. This phenomenon is not unique to Japan, but with 1.2 million estimated hikikomori, the condition may be culture-bound.[i] Regardless, hikikomori became a serious issue starting in the 1990’s—a decade that coincides with the internet boom. Holed up in their rooms, parents encourage the isolating behavior by providing their child with meals slid under the door, to name one. Technology also allows a point of contact to the outside world without having to leave the safety of their room (prison). I don’t have the time to go into detail about the psychology and socio-historical context of hikikomori, but it is worth mentioning that technology is not the only cause (such as the unrealistic expectation on Japanese men). While self-isolating behavior is not unique to Japan, this extreme case draws attention to a growing problem in modern society: loneliness. In the first class, we learned of the appointment of a Minister of Loneliness in the U.K to address loneliness and its inflicted health problems.[ii]

Conversation is a necessity for friendship. We established this in class on Thursday. I love strawberries and I love my mother, but I cannot have a conversation with strawberries; therefore, I am not friends with a strawberry. However, technology drives a wedge between people nowadays, as people young and old are glued to their phone. Is technology making us more antisocial? Perhaps the better question: how is technology affecting our relationships? The best way to answer questions of causation is through academic studies on the problem as well as a “cure.” There are many articles on the dangers of social media, smartphones, and the like; however, studies on friendship are more reparative than the usual ‘spend less time on your phone.’ Philosophies from the past are just as relevant in post-modernity because human relationships still exist as they did back then. The nature of relationships has changed with the variety of communication methods available with modern technology.

Facebook allows for friends and family to stay in touch which is certainly a positive, but social media also hinders relationships when time spent in person devolves into using phones with the occasional ‘u-huh, yeah, whatever.’ With the introduction of smartphones in formative years, kids struggle to form relationships without the crutch of smartphones because of the lack of real-life social skill practice. Smartphones are especially harmful in the developmental years when children should be playing outside and using their imagination instead of a constant consumption of uncensored material.

With teens spending their lives on their smartphones there is a cost. “The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015. In the same article, “teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.”[iii] Technology allows us to mimic interaction and communication but cannot replace getting coffee with a friend and philosophizing. Stephen Salkever summarizes from Aristotle’s writings on friendship that “neither philosophy nor politics nor virtue friendship alone is adequate to constitute human flourishing.”[iv] In other words, all three are required for a happy life. Out of philosophy, politics, and friendship, the latter has received the least attention from modern philosophers. Because of the rise of loneliness and the lack of focus on friendship studies, ancient philosophers who have focused on friendship, especially Aristotle, serve as a steady base from which to launch new studies.

“Human beings cannot live genuinely human lives without friendships involving continued conversation and thought.”[v] What happens when humans cannot live human lives? Loneliness and depression. Ardent argues that “‘we humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.’”[vi] With the whole of the internet available in your pocket, self-reflection is replaced by the philosophies of others on web forums who teach us to be human. These days, we hold more communication with machines than with humans. Instead of boredom driving a kid to knock on their neighbor’s door, the need for stimulation is filled by a glowing box. How much of a quality friendship can be made based on texting conversation? Salkever says that “the quality of a friendship thus depends on the quality of the conversation that constitutes it.”[vii] Friendships are essential for happiness and hopefully, as studies on friendship are continued, horrible conditions such as hikikomori will become a non-issue in a few decades.


[i] Phil Rees, Japan: The Missing Million, Documentary, directed by Darren Conway (2002; BBC Two), Film.

[ii]Yeginsu Ceylan, “U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness” last modified January 17, 2018.

[iii] Jean Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” last modified September 2017.

[iv] Stephen Salkever, “Taking Friendship Seriously: Aristotle on the Place(s) of Philia in Human Life,” in Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought eds. John Von Heyking and Richard Avramenko (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 67.

[v] Ibid, 74.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid, 75.



Ceylan, Yeginsu. “U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness” last modified January 17, 2018.

Rees, Phil. Japan: The Missing Million. Documentary. Directed by Darren Conway. 2002. BBC Two. Film.

Salkever, Stephen. Taking Friendship Seriously: Aristotle on the Place(s) of Philia in Human Life. In Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought, edited by John Von Heyking and Richard Avramenko. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.

Twenge, Jean. Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? last modified September 2017.

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