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01101111-01101110-01100101 is the loneliest number

Sorry to start this Sunday by crossing streams of my subconscious, so to speak, but the significant snub of this week’s Oscar nominations was the omission of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in the Best Documentary Feature category.

The biography of television icon Mister Rogers was a box office and critical success, and Academy Awards recognition was destined to follow ... until it didn’t.

More important than awards, however, is that the film touched something deep within the inner chi of those who saw it — a reminder that, at our core, there’s really nothing wrong with offering friendship and, more than likely, the Mister Rogerses (Rogersi?) of this world passive-aggressively wage war against one of our quietest social epidemics.


Three out of every four Americans (glance down your church pew this morning, or around the Sunday dinner table) experience “moderate to high levels of loneliness,” according to a new study by researchers at the University of California at San Diego.

If you think that number seems high, remember that it comes from the anecdotal data of those who choose to admit such feelings. Given how reticent some might be, that 75 percent might be the baseline.

Paired with a separate University of California study that found sustained loneliness increases the odds of an early death by 45 percent, and the empirical evidence we find around us should give us pause.

Much of today’s surge in solitary confinement, multiple studies report, can be traced — no surprise — to advances in technology that isolate us from engagement on a human-to-human level.

Experts in what has been dubbed “smartphone psychiatry” are identifying biomarkers for loneliness and depression within the usage patterns of high-tech gizmos, and are testing apps that could predict the onset of depression or self-harm.

“People often feel that these things are creepy,” University of Oregon psychologist Nick Allen told The Associated Press about the tracking of personal smartphone use, but he says sifting through such an analog avalanche could pinpoint factors “indicative of a mental health crisis.”

With depression and suicide rates growing — particularly among those under the age of 18 — there’s serious value in the ethical study of our use of technology.

On the other hand

At the other end of the technological spectrum, some developers are coming at the loneliness inherent within cyber-culture from an entirely different direction.

There’s an app called Cuddlist based in New York City, where the lonely in a metropolis of 8.6 million people can request “professional cuddlers” to give them a G-rated hug for 80 bucks an hour.

Then there’s the HearMe.app which, for $10 a week, allows you to share your deepest, darkest torments, not with crisis hotline workers, clergy or trained psychologists but online professional “listeners.”

Call me, if you must, an old stick in the mud, but I find those examples a tad more creepy than researchers sifting through my smartphone for biomarkers of potential trouble.

The underlying variable, as it is for everything from Facebook groups to sports chatrooms to online dating services, is what UC-San Diego researcher Karen Dobkins calls the ability to “edit yourself.”

“You present things you think other people will like,” Dobkins told The Associated Press, “but it’s often a false representation.”

Yep, we’re all human and humans embellish the truth.

Which, naturally, flips the bitcoin back over and leads us to non-human “advances” in creating robotic friends.

(You knew there’d be robots eventually.)

There’s one named Pepper that has been programmed to interact with those without artificial intelligence. Pepper is equipped with facial recognition; when you see it the next time, its programming “remembers” you.

Testing on Pepper with senior citizens is being done in Japan (where else?). The elderly also is the intended market for Bot Care and ElliQ — devices that can help manage the day-to-day needs of those without family, friends or caregivers to assist them.

At the recent technogadget extravaganza in Las Vegas (where else?), companies not only trotted out the latest in robotic dogs but robotic “friends” FOR YOUR DOG.

It’s all almost enough to make you spend 80 bucks on a professional hug.

I said “almost.”

When Alexander Graham Bell was testing the greatest technological marvel the world would ever see, his reported first audible utterance was “Mr. Waston, come here. I want to see you.”

That original phone-a-friend request wasn’t to a robot or a super-computer, but (shockingly) to a human being in a separate room.

Nearly 143 years later, our desire to simplify our lives through technology has made things far more complicated. When we send friend requests into cyberspace, we’re never quite sure if the person responding to our need for interaction is getting paid by the hour or is even who they say they are.

Eventually, artificial advancement might have unintended benefits. By the year 2025, apparently, nearly 50 percent of the workplace could be replaced by some form or other of robotic employee.

Someone’s probably working on an algorithm as we speak that combines pop culture references, an overabundance of em-dashes and ellipses, and narrative zigzags so that your Sunday column can continue on in perpetuity.

If that’s the case, we’ll all have a lot of time on our hands to make new friends as long as we don’t literally build them.

Mail Tribune copy desk chief Robert Galvin’s other column, “The Fourth Wall,” appears every week in Tempo.

Missed last week's "Get Off My Lawn"? Read it here.