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INSIGHTS BLOG > The Big Malaise

The Big Malaise

Written on 29 December 2021

Ruth Fisher, PhD. by Ruth Fisher, PhD

The malaise that pervades society today has become undeniable. We’re feeling a loss of connection and a loss of purpose in our lives. I believe this problem has been brewing for quite some time, and I believe it’s due to a confluence of factors that have been evolving over time, at least since the post-WWII era especially in the US, but also in the larger developed world. The factors involve changes in the environment in which we live, due to mutual interactions of social norms, technological development, government, and markets.

I have blogged in the past about how these four forces -- social norms, technological development, government, and markets -- interact and drive social evolution. I have also contemplated writing a book on the subject. However, the issue of the social unrest we’re experiencing comes up so often that I decided to briefly summarize what I believe are the major drivers of the problem and to briefly suggest how we approach a solution. 

Very briefly, the big factors that have been evolving over time and creating social problems include the following.

1. The Homogenization of our Worlds Is Causing Loss of Empathy

  • The Big Sort: People used to be physically integrated in society. The boss, his employees, and the grocer all lived together in the same neighborhood. With the availability of more information (and in many cases more competition), people have been able to predetermine where “their people” live and choose to locate accordingly. Now neighborhoods are much more homogeneous in nature – people surround themselves physically with like-minded individuals.
  • The Filter Bubble: At the same time, the ability to carefully filter what we see on the internet (news, social media, other info) further narrows the scope of the people we interact with in.
  • Bowling Alone: At the same time, we’re seeing a hollowing out of our communities: social spheres used to entail a series of concentric circles. 
    • Close family was in the center.
    • Close friends were in the circle around that.
    • Next came a series of circles containing those with whom you interacted with on a regular basis, people who comprised a slice of society, including the grocer, the people in your bowling league, you church group, etc.
    • And around the edges was government.

Most of the mid-level social circles have been squeezed out either by government or by technology (interactions are virtual rather than physical). As a result, we no longer interact with people who are different from us. 

We’re increasingly living in worlds that are highly groomed to contain only people and information we want to see. The loss of forced interaction with people from all different spheres of society creates a lack of empathy for people who differ from us. This is fueling the tribalism and polarization we’ve been seeing.

2. Specialization and Complexity Create Loss in Meaning

As information and knowledge both continue to explode, and as the world becomes larger (Adam Smith’s “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market”), people are increasingly specialized in their professional roles. 

At the same time, competition and technological improvement have driven products/services to become more complex (feature rich). 

The combination of increasing specialization and increasing complexity leads to increasing numbers of different participants required to produce any given product or service. There is thus a greater distance between the contribution of any particular individual on the production team and the larger product or outcome his or her contribution makes. This separation or distance creates a loss of meaning for contributors. 

3. Loss of Physical Contact

More and more of the actions we take are mediated by technology, enabling and/or creating a physical separation between us and the others we interact with. People have a need for physical contact with others. People need to touch and be touched.

4. Loss of Attention Creates Loss of Empathy

With the constant battle for people’s attention (The Attention Economy), people are no longer present in the task or the moment. There’s no longer any idle chit chat and there’s no room for casual interactions; yet, these are precisely the situations where people used to get to know one another, share their humanity, and be REAL. The Attention Economy creates a loss of empathy


While technology undoubtedly increases our well-being in unlimited numbers of way, it has also led to changes in our mutual interactions that have not served us well. In particular, technology is making us more like robots, stripping us of everything that makes us human. I believe this is the big underlying problem. The solution is for us to recapture our humanity. We must put down our phones and once again physically and mentally engage with each other as human beings. We must do better at recognizing each others’ needs: to be heard, to be touched, and to be recognized and appreciated for the contributions we each make.