The End of Solitude

I came across a wonderful piece written in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled The End of Solitude, by William Deresiewicz, which emphatically voices a concern that I have found growing in me with increasing fervor. Here’s a long, but important quote:

“But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. What technologies of transportation exacerbated — we could live farther and farther apart — technologies of communication redressed — we could bring ourselves closer and closer together. Or at least, so we have imagined. The first of these technologies, the first simulacrum of proximity, was the telephone.”Reach out and touch someone.” But through the 70s and 80s, our isolation grew. Suburbs, sprawling ever farther, became exurbs. Families grew smaller or splintered apart, mothers left the home to work. The electronic hearth became the television in every room. Even in childhood, certainly in adolescence, we were each trapped inside our own cocoon. Soaring crime rates, and even more sharply escalating rates of moral panic, pulled children off the streets. The idea that you could go outside and run around the neighborhood with your friends, once unquestionable, has now become unthinkable. The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the grandparent of a kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space. Under those circumstances, the Internet arrived as an incalculable blessing. We should never forget that. It has allowed isolated people to communicate with one another and marginalized people to find one another. The busy parent can stay in touch with far-flung friends. The gay teenager no longer has to feel like a freak. 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 — though contact, or at least two-way contact, seems increasingly beside the point. The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.”

I have always known, and been very comfortable with the fact, that I am an introvert. A better term might be an “expressive-introvert,” in that I am capable of, and even enjoy, social interaction, yet need solitude to recharge. However, I’ve noticed in the past year a growing inability to be alone as much as I have been used to in the past. I would not say that this is due to a decreasing need for solitude; I’m also finding myself exhausted most of the time. I feel that it would be foolish to blame this on social media, but I also acknowledge the correlation between these feelings and my increased activity online. Meanwhile, I am thankful for this technology as it has enabled me to stay in daily touch with my brother, who is studying overseas at the University of Edinbugh. Several years ago, we would have been economically forced to communicate much less. Who knows what impact that would have had on our friendship, but I can say today that it is as close as ever. Do I have Facebook, Skype and Google to thank?

I think Deresiewicz is on to something here, and, though the remedy seems simple enough (slow down, quiet down, be alone), I wonder if I have the self-control to execute it. What is reassuring to me is that what seems an unsustainable pace of novelty in our “wired” (this is a bit of a misnomer these days) culture also seems that way to someone else. Novelty, after all, only delays its true cost, so if we are running from boredom or loneliness, we just can’t keep it up forever!

Written by Christopher Butler on January 27, 2009,   In Essays

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