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 (], 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,
Communicating offline.

Another option is to use the Internet as a way to get out and meet new people. Try using 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 ( or CC-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.

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