Monday, January 26, 2009

An Important Public Service Announcement

One of the news feeds I receive at the office is the Daily Report from The Chronicle of Higher Education; it covers a broad range of issues relating to university administration, faculty development, fundraising, legislative news relating to academia, and the occasional rave or rant about "kids these days."

The related Chronicle Review offers space for op/ed commentary on same issues and often includes very thoughtful writing on current events.

I wanted to share with you an essay from today's issue, entitled The End of Solitude. Regular Querencia readers will note a strong thematic resonance. You can find it here, unless your access is blocked ( me).

Yale professor William Deresiewicz writes about the loss of solitude--our vanishing comfort with the notion and the experience of being alone--and supports his thesis with a range of examples drawn from among his students and elsewhere.

"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?"
Reaching farther than mere complaint, Deresiewicz places the phenomenon in historical context and makes a case for it as definitive of our present age.
Here's an extended passage (by no means a summary of his argument) where he takes us from his view of Modernism, where "The mob, the human mass, presses in. Hell is other people. The soul is forced back into itself,"--and thus solitude becomes a necessary form of escape--to the Postmodern area, where:

"...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.

"As a result, we are losing both sides of the Romantic dialectic. What does friendship mean when you have 532 "friends"? How does it enhance my sense of closeness when my Facebook News Feed tells me that Sally Smith (whom I haven't seen since high school, and wasn't all that friendly with even then) "is making coffee and staring off into space"? My students told me they have little time for intimacy. And of course, they have no time at all for solitude."

If you can find a few uncluttered moments for reading the entire essay, please do so. It's the most important thing I've read this year.

Coincidentally, I just dissolved my Facebook page and bid farewell to my 134 Friends. No hard feelings. It's nothing personal.

IM me?


stevea said...

Excellent article.

This summer we took the obligatory family driving vacation. Packed up wife, 3 kids, sister-in-law and me and drove from North Texas to the Grand Canyon and back.

It wasn't like when I was a kid or even when my older kids were young.

Everyone had their own dvd player, music player, electric outlet, camera, camera phone, video recorder. It was as silent in the van as if I were alone.

I swear this is the complete truth - they texted each other in the van.

The only time I heard spoken words was when my sister-in-law's GPS told me to go where I had already gone.

I just joined Facebook because my sister never returned my Christmas calls. Now we email every day.

Anonymous said...

I keep thinking that I should get into social networking like Facebook or My Space, but it's the sort of thing I never get around to doing. Perhaps it's because despite having given it much thought, I just can't quite see the point.


Harrison said...

Hi, I am actually writing about an old post you had on Harry Frishman. I have a feeling that Peculiar is my 3rd cousin Triple Jack. If so, please let him know I said hi.

Anonymous said...

Excellent -- and rather sobering post.

I'd been thinking that people just didn't respect the ideas of solitude and privacy anymore. It appears that the problem may be much worse if the issue is that they don't even understand it.

I like to take a lot of long walks in wild places alone with my dogs. I cherish that time to think, to daydream, to shake off the stresses of day to day life -- and sometimes just to enjoy the beasties' company.

More and more I find that complete strangers will rush up and try to impose their company on us. "We'll join you, you don't have to walk alone," they'll say (completely missing or ignoring the aloofness and distance-increasing signals I'm radiating in my own little China syndrome).

Today we don't just suffer from a scarcity of places to be alone in, we're also cursed with a lack of opportunities to be alone in them.

I'll bet that Aldo Leopold is spinning in his grave...

Cat Urbigkit said...

Excellent essay. My favorite line: "Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence. The lost sheep is lonely; the shepherd is not lonely."

Matt Mullenix said...

A friend pointed out yesterday (on IM) that my disconnecting from Facebook hardly amounts to a rejection of electronic communication or even of excessive electronic communication. She didn't need to mention that we were simultaneously instant-messaging and swapping files via email.

She has a point. But somehow email, and even IM, fit into my cognitive style and don't crowd it too much. (Although I don't text, that's because I don't carry a cell phone.)

Facebook, on the other hand, seems to me a whole other thing. It's pervasive and amorphous, nonlinear; like an ocean of floaters calling out to one another, or just looking at faces bobbing in the waves.

If you imagine how it might evolve in a world of broadband access and more powerful microprocessors, you could vitually be afloat in that Sargasso Sea, content to bump at random into your thousands of "friends" and trade hello or just watch them at their laptops, watching you.

Deresiewicz's students (and some of those I know here) might find that quite comforting. And I admit this has a strange alure.

...Odysseus knew it, even way back when (HT Wikipedia!): "They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return;"

Peculiar said...

I sent you a note, Harrison. Aggressive junk filters do sometimes throw out my hotmail address, so keep an eye out. Looking forward to being in touch!

Anonymous said...

Hey - is that photo really of Walden Pond?

If so, does anybody else find it unnerving that the only public access to the place where Thoreau went to commune with nature is a narrow path bound rigidly with fences on both sides?

Steve Bodio said...

It is in Massachusetts near Boston-- need say no more.

I think the scariest line in this whole post was "We'll join you, you don't have to walk alone".

Matt Mullenix said...

Steve I thoguht the same thing. Sinister, isn't it? Attack of the pod people...

When you told them you'd rather walk alone, they would open their mouths at impossibly wide angles and send a silent scream to the hordes who come to collect you.

Anonymous said...

communicating now more than ever, we have never said less.


Brenda Lyons said...

It is my observation that the more we become dependent on communication devices, the more we alienate and isolate ourselves from others. One rather heartbreaking example is that of a couple sitting at a restaurant, with one of the pair (or sometimes both!) texting instead of speaking. Another is Stevea's example, of his roadtrip to the Grand Canyon, and having each member in the vehicle submerged in their own piece of technology.

Yet, this is not a wholesome solitude. It is a withdrawal from people during a time of interaction. There are blessings that come with these pieces of technology, such as being able to communicate easily and inexpensively with a friend across the globe (through email or instant messaging), or having the ability to call for help if your car breaks down at night in a remote area. But this 'blessing' also comes at a price. It saddens me that the day of childhood pen-pals have been replaced by a quick email. There is something irreplaceably personal about a hand-written letter. Our society now expects everyone to be available to answer their phone at anytime because of cell phone technology. The ability to be alone is being encroached on by social expectations due to technology.

I find it harder and harder to find places to be alone. Little patches of woods are being mowed down to make room for developments. Strip-malls replace fields. It hurts my heart to walk down the street and just see building after building after building. I want to find a place where I can sit and not have to listen to traffic, or voices, and it's becoming nearly impossible.

And for those of us that want to be alone? Too many people criticize us for 'wasting our time' when we should be online, or answering our phones. Of course, this is the age of multitasking. Surely, according to them, it's okay for us to 'spend time alone,' as long as we're within reach of our cell phones or internet access.