Friday, 18 May 2012

Finding Our Way


A few years ago, my adventure partner decided to surprise me with a TomTom. To be perfectly honest, I thought it was a pointless piece of technology. I had happily road tripped through multiple countries by looking for road signs and reading my maps, so I didn’t need a GPS. Two months later as we were driving through Denver, I discovered that having a soft-spoken voice tell me when to turn left made for a much healthier marriage than using my husband as a navigator. My love affair with the GPS was born! 

The TomTom became one of those arbitrary markers: life before the GPS and life after the GPS. Pre-GPS, some of my favorite afternoons started out by driving with no set destination in mind. One random Wednesday, I woke up and decided to drive to the English coast. I turned left on a whim after seeing a sign for a tourist route. Thanks to that detour, I visited two castles, had some amazing homemade black currant jam, and discovered one of my favorite vineyards.

Driving without a GPS was not without its fair share of problems though. One night when I was still very new to England, I volunteered to drop a friend off at Gatwick airport, and then headed home to Cambridge. At some point I took a wrong turn, and after an hour or so the road just ended at a large body of water. I found this to be strange because I didn’t remember crossing an ocean on the way down. I backtracked to the nearest gas station and asked the attendant where I was.

Attendant:     You’re in Brighton.

Me:               Where the hell is that?

Attendant:    (Points to a city on the southern tip of England).

Me:               You’re shitting me, right?

The attendant burst out laughing when I explained where I needed to go. I rested my head on the counter, regrouped, and said, “All right. I’m gonna need a map, a pack of smokes, and some Red Bull. This is going to be a long night.”

North and south were lost on me that night.


I arrived back home just in time to change clothes and go to work. In that instance, I really wish I’d had a TomTom.

I can’t argue the fact that the GPS has made my life infinitely easier, but sometimes I wonder if it’s simultaneously taking away my ability to navigate without it. In 2011, researchers at Columbia University, led by Betsy Sparrow, found that we’re more likely to forget facts that we can easily look up. This finding was dubbed the “Google effect.” Similarly, I don’t remember directions to places that I visit now, because I know the TomTom will get me there. Am I sacrificing part of my intellectual abilities for the sake of convenience?

When I’m lost, the journey is part of the adventure. I have to figure out where I am and where I need to be. Getting lost has given me the chance to see places I never would have visited otherwise, and has introduced me to a lot of interesting people. Whenever I turn on my GPS the thought lingers in the back of my mind: How will I ever find myself if I never get lost?

I’ve been attempting to use my GPS less in an effort to regain some of my navigational skills. It’s been simple trips recently, such as finding the community center in a country village I’d never been to before. I imagine I could’ve found the community center faster had my trusty TomTom guided me down every street, but I took the time to read the road signs, look around, and take in this tiny village.
In addition to a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing that I could find my destination without any outside assistance, I found myself appreciating all of the little details of English villages that I’m going to miss: the old men sitting outside the pub, the grassy views of the Cambridgeshire countryside, and the tiny co-op grocery stores. Everything seems slower in the villages.

In the summer, I experiment with various ways of getting home GPS free, just to experience life away from the highway. I’ll take a tractor and a railway crossing any day over rows of semis and pissed off commuters. This simple change to my daily routine saved countless lives when I was quitting smoking. When the farmers plant their fields, I like to roll the windows down so I can smell the scent of freshly tilled earth. This plan has a tendency to backfire near the pig farms, but it’s the risk you take.

The many scents of England.

I keep the GPS in my glove box so it’s there if I need it, but the convenience of the TomTom pales in comparison to the satisfaction I get from finding my own way. Much like life, I appreciate my journey more when I know I’ve created it myself, no matter how many twists and turns I may take.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Not Your Average Dollar Menu


There’s a certain stigma attached to Americans eating in fast food restaurants overseas. Someone might think we can’t even make it a week without visiting McDonald’s, or that we’re too set in our ways to try the local food. There are plenty of articles out there advocating that you should eat where the locals eat and avoid touristy hot spots. This is not that type of article.

I love food. I especially love going to different countries and trying out dishes I’ve never heard of before, but I’m also an advocate of visiting American chain restaurants to see how the menu varies from country to country. Even things that you can find on the menu at home taste different in every country, so consider yourself a fast food anthropologist for a day and start experimenting!

By joe (Tudor Pizza Hut) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
If it's good enough for Shakespeare...

Since I’ve already mentioned McDonald’s, let’s start there. The first thing you’ll want to be aware of is that most foreign McDonald’s let you salt your own fries. Discovering how much salt you need to add in order to make your fries taste “normal” is an eye-opening experience.

Another food that tastes different away from home is Japan’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese. I’m not sure how they do it, but it is absolutely amazing. I imagine it’s infused with crack and magic. On the flip side, the Chicken McNuggets in the Czech Republic may as well be made of sawdust.

If you’re looking for something completely different, try a McArabia in the Middle East. You can choose from either chicken or spiced beef (kofta) wrapped up in a pita with lettuce, tomato, onion, and garlic sauce.

By Todd Huffman from Phoenix, AZ (McArabia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
You know you're curious.

France recently started offering the McBaguette, and some European franchises offer a deli-style counter with cold sandwiches, salads, and juices. Every country’s menu is unique, so it’s worth five minutes of your time to step inside and have a look.

One thing you may notice about overseas McDonald’s is that they don’t look like fast food joints. Except for the standard golden arches, many look like upscale restaurants. Try not to be shocked by the modern art, tasteful d├ęcor, and oak furnishings.

By Karelj (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Welcome to McDonald's in Budapest.

The smooth jazz playing softly through the speakers lends a nice background for the young professionals sipping lattes and taking advantage of the free WiFi. However, if you need that trashy feeling you can only get with a shamrock shake and some hashbrowns, stop back around 2 a.m. Drunks take the class out of everything.

Another restaurant that‘s fun to try out overseas is Pizza Hut. When asked which country could create something as awe-inspiring as a pizza crust made of mini-cheeseburgers, my first thought would be America. However, this little miracle is called the Crown Crust Pizza and it’s only offered in the Middle East.


England offers a stuffed-crust pizza that’s a shade more awesome than you would expect. America may stuff their crust with cheese, but England stuffs theirs with hot dogs. It’s currently sold out due to its popularity, but I have made it my mission to try it. Until then, I will have to stick with the tear-off cheesy bites crust with the complementary marinara dipping sauce.

By Daeguexpat (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
It's not fast food if it comes with a bow.

Before you get jealous of fast food across the pond, know that there are several things I miss from American franchises. For one, England doesn’t have anything close to a biscuit. What they do call a “biscuit” is actually a cookie, so you can see how things might get confusing. No biscuit means I can’t enjoy a bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast meal on a Saturday morning. They do offer breakfast sandwiches on an English muffin, which as you might guess is simply called a “muffin.” The lack of biscuits also means there are none to be had at KFC, which is just as well because KFC doesn’t offer mashed potatoes here either. I have a hard time appreciating KFC if I know I’m not going to walk out with a mashed potato bowl. However, Burger King offers chili cheese bites (which are kind of like a tater tot stuffed with Velveeta and jalapenos) so it all balances out in the end.

When you travel overseas, make sure that you do sample the local cuisine of whatever place you happen to visit. Have the fish and chips in Britain, the schnitzel in Germany, and the dolmathes in Greece. Enjoying the food is part of experiencing the culture, but don’t let your self-consciousness get in the way of your curiosity when it comes to fast food abroad. A trip to McDonald’s in Athens is not the same as it is in Kansas City, and you owe it to yourself to try it. Bon appetit!

Bad Decisions Make the Best Stories


Once in awhile it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to. –Alan Keightley

This quote suddenly sprang to mind a few hours ago as I lay on a hospital bed, listening to a doctor and a nurse debate the stupidity of one of my decisions.  To explain, we’re going to need a little back-story…

I decided to celebrate my freedom from the military by getting a single-point piercing (also called a “microdermal”) on the top of my wrist. After so many years of only being able to wear certain colors of nail polish, having my hair a certain way, and blending in with everyone else, I wanted to do something different. Goodbye uniform, hello permanent stud in my arm!

Courtesy of Deanna Wardin @ Tattoo Boogaloo on Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/graphicward/2549945698/in/photostream/
A sing-point piercing.


After researching a reputable establishment and finding a well-known piercer, I went for it. The initial act itself hurt less than an ear piercing, and I’ve been happy with my decision ever since.

Fast forward to now. I’m preparing for a 5-week adventure, mostly involving beaches. Beaches mean sand and sun, neither of which bode well for an internal implant. My recent trip to Malta was experience enough to tell it me it was time to let the piercing go.

In this situation, one would typically find a licensed piercer and have them remove the implant. If you’re the right mix of brave and stupid, you can remove it yourself (don’t Google how to do that, it will ruin your afternoon).  Seeing as there's an ocean separating me from my piercer, my options were a bit more limited, so I opted for a medical professional.

Courtesy of Edgeofdefeat, from Wikimedia Commons
This is the part that's implanted under the skin.

In my rural English village, no one has ever seen a piercing like this before. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been approached with a look of horror and curiosity, quickly followed by a slew of questions involving how, did it hurt, and why. For the most part, I enjoy this easy conversation opener and am happy to answer any questions.

My nurse today was the grandmotherly type—I imagine her home always smells like fresh baked cookies and she coordinates her tablecloths with the holiday seasons. Needless to say, she was not impressed with my reason for surgery. As she ranted about how insane my piercing was and why it should be illegal, the doctor kept reminding her that everyone does trendy things in their youth and that I can handle myself. Exasperated, she launched the end-all of accusations at him: “What would you say if it were YOUR daughter coming home with a piercing like that?”

The doctor smiled at the idea, looked calmly up from his work, and reminded her that there’s such a thing as being too sensible, and that it's perfectly fine to have some adventure in your life. These adventures make you stronger.

There’s such a thing as being too sensible in life. As much as she was trying to help, all of the nurse’s chastisements were starting to make me feel embarrassed, and the doctor made a valid point. Is going to a tattoo parlor and having a piece of metal permanently implanted in your arm the smartest move? Probably not, but I don’t have any regrets. I achieved my goal of separating myself out from the camouflage-colored crowd, and I added one more story to the “experience” column of my life.

My adventure partner has borrowed my habit of writing down meaningful quotes on index cards. He left this one by Mark Twain next to the computer:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones that you did.  So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sail. Explore. Dream. Discover.
Today may have been painful, but I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. So go out there and get that crazy ass piercing or tattoo if you want it. Make a mess of things, question the status quo, and have a bit of fun.  Now is your chance to make some bad decisions and have some stories to laugh about in the future. Whenever I look down at my arm, I can rest assured that no one else is going to have a scar quite like this one.

I’d like to leave you with my favorite quote by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In an effort to explain himself and his reputation for being an 18th century sexual deviant, he wrote a fabulous tell-all autobiography called Confessions, which was published posthumously. He opens his story by saying:
I have studied mankind and know my heart; I am not made like any one else I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality.
I proudly claim my originality and the stitches to prove it.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Alone with our Technology: Part Three


In the first two posts, I covered why time away from technology is important for our growth as individuals. We need that quiet space to sit and think, to understand that being alone isn’t something to fear, and that we don’t have to be “on” all the time. The call of technology is loud; we’ve become accustomed to on-demand entertainment and we worry about missing out if we log off. One of the scariest things about logging off is that we may discover that without the constant stream of someone else’s updates, we’re bored. Yes, there is a very good chance that you might find out that you, the master of witty status updates, are boring.

By C-SPAN (WP:CSPAN) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Is this more exciting than being alone with your thoughts?


This is the risk we take when we log off. However, as with any risk, there’s an equally good chance that the experience could surprise us in a good way. After a period of separation, we may find that we value the presence of others more than before, but we’ll never know if we don’t take that first, scary step. In the words of Deresiewicz, “The more we keep aloneness at bay, the less are we able to deal with it and the more terrifying it gets.”

Rediscovering solitude requires us to first acknowledge the role that social networking plays in our lives. Disalvo explains in Scientific American, “As social networks proliferate, they are changing the way people think about the Internet, from a tool used in solitary anonymity to a medium that touches on questions about human nature and identity: who we are, how we feel about ourselves, and how we act toward one another.”  If we learn to enjoy life without constant connectivity, we can learn to use technology as a tool instead of a crutch. Instead of using the Internet to IM our friends, we could invite them to meet us in person.

Courtesy of Rodrigo Suarez on Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ervega/2730585942/
Communicating offline.


Another option is to use the Internet as a way to get out and meet new people. Try using MeetUp.com or googling local groups that share your interests: book clubs, amateur theater groups, or intramural sports. Even if we can’t meet face-to-face, we can video chat with our friends and family to help reestablish those nonverbal cues.

We can once again find the balance between intimacy and isolation, logged in and unplugged. We can appreciate quality friendships over a quantity of acquaintances, and we can use social networking to our advantage. You may have 600 “friends” but Dunbar’s number proposes that we can cognitively maintain a maximum of 150 actual relationships. At 150, we have time to properly nourish these relationships, as well as focus on our own individual growth. Consider the problems associated with maintaining several hundred friendships:

1. The people who don’t matter distract you from the ones who do.

Let’s be honest. As useful as social networking can be, it’s also a massive time suck and the perfect procrastination tool. I would love to finish that paper, but I have to comment on my colleague’s vacation photos or she’ll think I don’t care. Typically this analogy applies to your work, but it can also be used on your real relationships. It’s easy to become distracted by everyone’s random links and statuses, and miss out on the information from people who really matter. More than once I’ve been distracted by photo albums and links to articles and then completely forgotten to send that email I promised to a family member. We need to know how many relationships we can honestly maintain at one time, and then give our full attention to the ones that matter.

2. The intimate details of strangers cheapen your real friendships.

I’m sure you have a few people in your friends’ list who are casual acquaintances at best. Maybe you met them once at a party, or you worked together for a few weeks. At any rate, these are not the kind of people you hang out with on a regular basis, but I bet you know a lot about them. Without even being nosey, you are inundated by pictures of their children, updates about their daily personal struggles, and information about the issues that matter to them. In effect, you know the quirks, features, and virtues that make them a unique individual. These details used to be reserved for close friends, shared over dinner after years of knowing one another. If you know everything about everyone, what makes those intimate details special?


3. Dragging your past into your present can sour your memories.

There’s probably a few other friends in your list that at one time, you knew very well. Someone from high school or college will normally work for this example. You had so much in common and were great friends. You vacationed together, drank together, and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. Note the use of past tense...

Normal life events would’ve taken you on your separate paths, and you would’ve looked back on your years together with a smile. Thanks to social networking, you are still in contact with them and to be perfectly honest, they annoy the shit out of you. You’ve both grown in different directions and hold opposing world views. Sometimes you wonder why you ever liked this person in the first place. If your past had stayed in the past, your memories of this person would still be good ones.

Think of it like a bouquet of flowers. Yes, they were beautiful and were a wonderful addition to your life, but now the dead leaves are making a mess on your counter and it’s time to let them go.

4. Your friends hate your other friends.

Social networking has this amazing way of bringing together your past and present and then letting them engage each other for all to see. I’ve seen far too many status updates turn into a slew of insults from people who have never met and have nothing in common but you. Lists and filters are helpful, but it was much easier to compartmentalize our various social groups before we had an online presence. If nothing else, at least our grandma didn’t have the option of reading a hate-filled comment stream.

Social networking is here to stay, and can offer us some amazing benefits. On the flip side, it can also cause us more than a few headaches. As with all things, it’s a matter of finding the balance. From time to time, it’s ok to unplug and simply be alone with our thoughts. To put the world on pause, and rest without computers or smart phones. Consider it a vacation from the network.  You could even try it out while on vacation.

By Infrogmation of New Orleans (Photo by Infrogmation (talk) of New Orleans) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A cell phone free zone.


In part one, I mentioned that Montaigne called this space our “backshop, wholly our own and entirely free.” It’s a space where you can do whatever you want, be whoever you are, and not have to answer to anyone. Being alone and away from the network doesn’t have to be something we stress about. It’s a break from the world. Enjoy it!

Deresiewicz, William. “The End of Solitude.” Chronicle of Higher Education 55.21 (2009): B6-B9. Web.

Disalvo, David. “Are Social Networks Messing with Your Head?” Scientific American Mind 20.7 (2010): 48-55. Web.

Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Trans. Charles Cotton. 1877. Web.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Alone with our Technology: Part Two


In Part One, I started to discuss how social networking can negatively impact our lives when it infringes on our ability to be alone. I’m continuing that thought here, but focusing on the two groups that are most active on Facebook: teenagers and young adults.

Erik Erikson studied Freudian psychoanalysis in the early 20th century, and even expanded Freud’s stages of development. Don’t use this as an excuse to dismiss his ideas just yet. So why am I telling you about an old psychoanalyst, and how does this apply to our topic of social networking? First of all, I find the history of modern psychology to be fascinating. Second, Erikson’s Fifth Age of Man is Identity vs. Role Confusion. This stage happens during the teenage years or in other words, prime social networking time. It’s referred to as a “moratorium,” or a time for “finding oneself.”

Erik Erikson
As more and more teens discover the power of technology, they’re losing out on their moratorium period. Turkle explains, “The idea of the moratorium does not easily mesh with a life that generates its own electronic shadow.” When every mistake and outburst is logged in a permanent record for the world to see and interact with, these adolescents are constantly “on.”

In 1950, long before free love, disco, or smart phones, Erikson wrote that teenagers are “primarily concerned with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are.” Facebook can be a place to test out certain facets of their personality, but the pressure to “like” the right bands and say the right thing in the eyes of their peers can be overwhelming.

When in doubt, "like" the cat pictures. Always a win.

An off comment in a conversation can quickly be forgotten, but when typed onto the glaring white screen of a user’s profile, there’s a tangible record of that moment to be copied and shared with others. Before we launch into a tirade about how easy teens have it these days and how much harder it was when we were kids, let’s just consider the social implications of an online presence in high school for a second. Think back to your most embarrassing teenage moment. Now imagine that video or picture being posted on Facebook or YouTube, to be viewed on-demand by everyone you know. Cyber-bullying aside, social networking can add a cruel twist to an awkward teen’s life. I imagine that "Star Wars Kid" wished he was a child of the 80's so he could've had this moment without over 25 million people viewing it:



Personally, I wish I had access to Google as a teen. I also wish I would’ve been guaranteed the privacy of a cell phone conversation without someone’s mom picking up the downstairs’ line, but I feel so lucky to have gone through my high school years without the stress of social networking. Before the world of Facebook and text messaging, teenagers could test boundaries and try on a variety of roles, but they also had more anonymity with their mistakes.

Another change continual technology offers is that teens never have to make a decision on their own. Even picking out a shirt can be a collaborative effort. A photo can be snapped on a cell phone and uploaded in seconds with the question “What do you think?” posed to hundreds of friends. Collaboration can be an excellent skill to have, but to allow others to influence every decision denies them the ability to grow in their own right. Turkle explains, “We used to equate growing up with the ability to function independently. These days always-on connection leads us to reconsider the virtues of a more collaborative self.” We don’t have to learn independence when the Internet makes it so easy to learn the preferences of others and glide seamlessly into that adolescent desire to fit in, to be indistinguishable from the cliquish herd of their peers.

Look at that intensity...

But how do young adults discover themselves when they’re logged in and under scrutiny? How can they learn to independently consider deeper decisions when a multitude of opinions is always available at their fingertips? We don’t have to think anymore, to make difficult decisions, to work out what we truly value, when we can allow the network to do it for us. It’s easy for us to stay in the mentality of the teenager, reaching out to others to validate our needs. But in order to become fully functional adults, we need time apart. We don’t get the chance to grow up when we live exclusively in relation to others.

As you might suspect, Erikson’s Fifth Age of Man is followed by the Sixth, defined as Intimacy vs. Isolation. This is the period we enter in our early 20’s. The goal of this time is to learn how to commit ourselves “to concrete affiliations and partnerships and to develop the ethical strength to abide by such commitments.” Should we fail to find the balance between intimate relationships and a comfortable level of solitude, “a fear of ego loss may lead to a deep sense of isolation and consequent self-absorption.” I imagine Erikson would be impressed by the variety of examples of self-absorption one can find on Facebook.

The debate continues to rage: does Facebook create narcissists or simply allow them to shine? I’m firmly in the camp that the apparent uptick in narcissistic tendencies is a sign of the times, and Facebook is just another venue for the self-absorbed to express themselves. When you grow up continually hearing that you’re special and never have to experience the pain of failure, it can’t really come as a surprise that you have some narcissistic tendencies. This, however, is another topic all to itself.

The argument that social networking and narcissism are related gained further ground after a Guardian article reported on a Western Illinois University study. According to the article, the study provided “some of the first evidence of a direct relationship between Facebook friends and the most ‘toxic’ elements of narcissistic personality disorder.”

Researchers at Appalachian State University found that narcissistic users were no more likely to update their status than other users. Shawn Bergman, who led the study, reported to Discovery News that “There is a significant amount of psychological research that shows that one’s personality is fairly well-established by age 7,” so it is unlikely that social networking is the cause of the problem. However, the same article notes that narcissists do tend to have different motivations for updating their statuses. They want people to read about their lives because they think people are interested in them, and their profiles “tend to feature more self-promoting profile photos and first-person singular pronouns.” If nothing else, social networking does make narcissistic tendencies much easier to spot.

Conger, Cristin. "Don't Blame Facebook for the Narcissism Epidemic." Discovery News 04 Aug 2011. Web.

Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993. Print.

Pearse, Damien. "Facebook's 'Dark Side': Study Finds Link to Socially Aggressive Narcissism." The Guardian 17 Mar 2012. Web.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010. Digital.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Alone with our Technology: Part One


One of my passions is investigating the role of social networking in our personal lives. As I have a blog and spend most of the day online, I can appreciate the way the Internet allows me to connect with a wider audience, in a way that no previous piece of technology has been able to accomplish. With the prevalence of smartphones and tablet PC’s, we literally hold in our hands the ability to reach out anywhere, anytime. Although I love this ability, I find myself wondering if continual connectivity is too good to be true. My fear for the technology generation is that by allowing ourselves to be perpetually "plugged in" we’re giving up an essential piece of our humanity: our ability to be alone.

I want to share my thoughts on the balance between technology and solitude to you in a series of posts. The irony of using a blog to explain why it’s important to unplug and be by ourselves for awhile isn’t lost on me. If you prefer video to reading, I’m including a link to Sherry Turkle’s TED talk at the end of this post. Turkle, a Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, recently wrote the book Alone Together. It’s a fantastic read and I can’t recommend it enough.

Additionally, I would like to point out that although I typically use Facebook as an example, I’m referring to all social media sites. Facebook just happens to be the most popular, and I’m generalizing for the sake of brevity. Relax, Twitter fans. I respect all 140 characters of your opinion.

So why do I advocate solitude? Many confuse this word with loneliness and imagine eccentrics in caves or the weird kid sitting alone in the cafeteria. According to a 1993 Washington Post article, we fear solitude when we "unfairly equate 'alone' with 'lonely.' And a whole host of other unhappy words, like friendless, unlikable, unlovable, unloved." Solitude is, quite simply, the state of being alone, without any of the negative or positive emotions we may attach to the word.

The dog won't care if you're alone with your thoughts.

When we view solitude as something more emotionally charged than this, we naturally want to avoid it. Thanks to technology, we have an easy way to this. William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale, noticed a trend amongst his students. More and more of them were mentioning that they didn’t enjoy being alone, even when they were studying. He has since written about the way technology allows us to be physically separated, without ever being alone. He fears that in losing our solitude, we have also lost "the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life."

Regardless of how you define "spiritual life," solitude has always been necessary place to explore your own thoughts and feelings. After all, if you don’t understand you own mind, how can you understand the workings of someone else’s? Alone, we take the time to nurture our minds and ourselves; we take the time to explore hobbies and read books. The poet Francis Petrarch wrote: "Isolation without literature is exile, prison, and torture; supply literature, and it becomes your country, freedom, and delight." He had good reason to be biased, but he’s not wrong.

Michel de Montaigne wrote an entire essay about his love of solitude arguing, "We have lived enough for others; let us at least live out the small remnant of life for ourselves." Deresiewicz’s university students found solitude to be uncomfortable, whereas Montaigne felt that “the greatest thing in the world is for a man to know that he is his own.” Through his work, he taught others how to separate themselves from the masses and learn to trust in their own company. Online, we leave behind his “backshop, wholly our own and entirely free” in order to lose ourselves in the quiet glow of our computer screens.

Facebook, the most popular social networking site worldwide, warmly asks it users, “What’s on your mind?” In the book I mentioned earlier, Turkle points out that “Every day each of us is bombarded by people’s random thoughts. We start to see such effusions as natural.” Does the world really need to know what’s on our mind at any given moment? And why do we feel the need to check in several times each day to read the ramblings of someone else’s life?

We have developed a fear of missing out. If something happens and we don’t read about it in a status update, we fear that we’ll be left out of the gossip. We want to feel as though we’re a part of the group. We need to know that we matter. Similarly, we need to demonstrate to the rest of the world that we’re doing something with our time. We’re exciting, interesting people dammit!

Deresiewicz wrote, “This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible.” In this desperate drive to reach out, connect, and share, we’ve become even lonelier than before. We’ve increased the quantity of connections, but we’ve lost the quality. We’re losing a bidding war to be heard as we broadcast the mundane details of our lives. I can almost hear John C. Reilly singing “Mister Cellophane”:

Everyone gets noticed, now and then,
Unless, of course, that personage should be
Invisible, inconsequential me!

No matter how boring the update, we want to connect! Human beings are social animals, and the Internet can be great for reaching out to faraway friends and family. However, the quality of communication we have is greatly enhanced by our perception of their expressions. Robert Putnam expressed this concern in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone. “Computer-mediated communication, now and for the foreseeable future, masks the enormous amount of nonverbal communication that takes place during even the most casual face-to-face encounter.”

An email (even with emoticons, all caps, and excessive punctuation) can’t convey the same amount of information as a face-to-face encounter. We miss the nonverbal cues when we scroll through our Twitter feeds or respond via text. In a live conversation, we don’t have the option of pausing for two minutes and rewording our response. We can tell when our friend’s eyes light up at our news or look away with disappointment. In short, we’re more “real” when we don’t have the option of polishing our response.

The other aspect of quality we’re missing is the ability to know if we have our friend’s full attention. When we’re IM’ing or even talking on the phone, we have no way of knowing if our friend is fully focused on our story, or if they’re also maintaining four other conversations. Does that “Mm-hmm” mean they’re nodding in agreement, or passively acknowledging us while scrolling through their inbox? Turkle pointed out, “We enjoy continual connection but rarely have each other’s full attention.” We don’t feel completely alone, but we don’t feel completely connected either. As social networking grows and increasingly becomes the preferred way to connect, author David Disalvo worries that it “will supplant the richness of real-world relationships with an endless stream of trivial interactions.”

Convenient, but not ideal.

It’s so easy to pull away from others and drift towards the safer world of online communication. Rejection online isn’t the same as having to face the awkwardness of rejection in real life. The world of the Internet is faster, more animated, and involves less of an emotional investment. It’s the fast food of social interaction; who wouldn’t see the appeal?

Take a Facebook friendship, for example. We can interact with snippets of their personality, respond to the comments we find favorable, and ignore or even filter out the aspects that we don’t like. We never have to deal with a whole person, for better or for worse. We can choose which side of their personality to engage. It’s a way for us to be in a “relationship” but protect ourselves at the same time. However, when we only focus on the parts of a person that we agree with, we lose out on the richness of true human relationships. Instead, we fade in and out of our digital worlds without ever experiencing the full weight of friendship and interaction. It’s not hard to see how this superficial communication would leave us feeling lonely, even when we’re not alone.

Brown, Joe. “Me, Myself and I.” Washington Post 15 Oct 1993, Final: N7. Digital.

Deresiewicz, William. “The End of Solitude.” Chronicle of Higher Education 55.21 (2009): B6-B9. Web.

Disalvo, David. “Are Social Networks Messing with Your Head?” Scientific American Mind 20.7 (2010): 48-55. Web.

Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Trans. Charles Cotton. 1877. Web.

Petrarch, Francis. The Life of Solitude. Trans. Jacob Zeitlin. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1924. Print.

Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2000. Print.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010. Digital.

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