Everywhere we look, people are disappearing. Disappearing into their bedrooms, into their phones, into the metaverse and out of their real lives.
As life becomes more virtualised and more artificial, as our digital lives supersede our physical existence, as our stores of value – of both worldly financial wealth and social credit – become increasingly virtualised, our ties to reality loosen, to the point that more and more people are attempting to sever them altogether.
The technologically advanced, yet ancient civilisation of Japan is in many ways the canary in this particular coal mine; a glimpse of the global future humanity is headed towards unless we deliberately decide to change course.
Japan already has a vocabulary for the phenomena the rest of us are only just beginning to understand. The hikikomori, for example, is the term used for young people (most of whom are young men) who feeling unable to cope with or compete in society turn inwards, choosing to lock themselves away to become hermits in their tiny cluttered apartments. Far from an isolated phenomenon, there are now an estimated 700,000 hikikomori in Japan, many of whom rely on volunteers or government assistance for survival.
Similarly, the johatsu, is the term used in Japan to refer to the disappeared, the growing number of individuals who chose to simply vanish from their own lives without a trace, placing themselves into a sort of voluntary witness protection programme. There is now a thriving industry around helping prospective johatsu do exactly that.
However, the disturbing trend of escapism is not just a Japanese phenomenon. Nor, indeed, are people only chasing to disappear in the literal sense. The increasing deaths of despair, referring to deaths caused by alcoholism, suicide and drug-related causes, of which there are now in excess of 150,000 a year in the USA alone (mostly afflicting young men again), can also be viewed as a form of escapism from a world that the victims feel they cannot survive, let alone win in.
Likewise, we should not discount the trend towards digital escapism, either though social media addiction or through excessive gaming as part of the same overarching meta trend. We would rather invest, in the literal and figurative sense, in our digital lives than in our real ones. Young people (and their parents) are using gaming platforms as a form of social media. Gaming platforms have become a place to meet friends and build parallel lives that may well be more fulfilling and more enriching (once again, in the literal and the fugitive sense, as metaversenomics, or gaming economies are developing into mature markets with real value created and exchanged between consumers and businesses ) than their mundane physical lives.
All these trends, of course, have only been accelerated by COVID-19 lockdowns that forced most of us to walk away from our real lives, close our offices and talk to our colleagues, friends and families via a screen rather than face to face.
Somewhat ironically, the more digitally connected and interconnected our lives become, the less we are able to develop and maintain flesh and blood social bonds. It is easier to accumulate likes on social media than it is to meet a new To illustrate this point, a 2019 YouGov survey found that one in five millennials (22%) has no friends at all.
Is it any wonder then that we wish to escape and start again? To create rich fantasy worlds in our bedrooms, and through our laptop screens where we can be anyone and do anything? But what becomes of a society based on fantasy roll play and escapism? Who stays behind to fix our real problems to make reality worth living in again?
This article was first commissioned for Brainstorm magazine.