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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