Sitting in the quiet living in the pre-dawn hours, I came across William Deresiewicz’s essay on technology, sociability, and solitude in the Chronicle Review. For those who have access to it, it’s well worth reading.
One book that influenced me when I was younger was Anthony Storr’s Solitude. I didn’t actually read that much of it, and I doubt I understood it very well, but the idea that solitude was worthwhile and rewarding, and nothing to be afraid of, was a novel concept for me. Deresiewicz argues that his students, who’ve grown up with MySpace and text messaging (among other things), have lost most opportunities to learn and benefit from being alone.
If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.
So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn’t say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can. I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That’s 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and toothbrushing time. So on average, she’s never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she’s never alone.
I once asked my students about the place that solitude has in their lives. One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she’ll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?
To that remarkable question, history offers a number of answers. Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value. In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience…. For the still, small voice speaks only in silence.
One thing that jumped out at me was that Deresiewicz contrasts the physical solitude that used to characterize being online, with the situation today. It used to be that “connecting” online was more a physically isolating experience, done at desks, in front of desktops. Today, though, you don’t have to be alone to go online: just as cellphones and mobile Web technologies make it less likely that you’ll ever be offline, and lower the bar for jumping onto the Web, they make it less likely that you’ll be fruitfully alone.
But as the Internet’s dimensionality has grown, it has quickly become too much of a good thing. Ten years ago we were writing e-mail messages on desktop computers and transmitting them over dial-up connections. Now we are sending text messages on our cellphones, posting pictures on our Facebook pages, and following complete strangers on Twitter. A constant stream of mediated contact, virtual, notional, or simulated, keeps us wired in to the electronic hive…. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.
Of course, we all know plenty of people who manage to feel alone even today, and it’s possible to resist the pull of technology: there are people who rebel against constant connectivity, on the grounds that it’s too intrusive and distracting. But still, I think Deresiewicz points to a bigger trend that most of us will recognize.
A rich essay. Worth reading.