Monday, October 31, 2016

Solitude in the technologically connected world

I think that I have qualities that will piss people off day in and day out.  But, maybe there are at least a couple of things about me that appeal to somebody.  And maybe a couple of different things about me appeal to somebody else.  But, here is the problem: Anybody who wants to be friends with me has to work with the entire me, right?  After all, they can't merely get those one or two things and then vanish.

If you agree with me, then you are my kind of a person.  But then that is also why you are here, reading the crap that I post every day.

But, if you think about seriously enough, you will immediately see that you can get those one or two things from me and then vanish.  Are you thinking how?

For instance, the moment I start talking slowly about something that absolutely fascinates me but is boring to you, maybe you start doing a quick check on the emails.  Or the Facebook feed.  Or you are sending a text message to your colleague at work about the meeting tomorrow. Or, you ... now you can begin to see how you can choose to get what you want from me, right?

Of course, this is not anything new.  In the old days, people simply zoned out.  Students' minds drifted off into worlds far away from away from our galaxy.  But, what is new is, well, let me give you an example.  Recently, I texted an older friend about swinging by their place to say hi and chat for a while.  A couple of minutes later, the text reply that I read shocked me.  The message said that they were at a funeral service for a friend.  Before the days of the smartphone, when we attended a funeral service, we had no choice but to be physically and mentally be at the funeral service.  Not anymore.  Whether it is a funeral, or a wedding, or my classes, or a board meeting, or whatever, we have started being here and in a gazillion other places all at once at the same time.
Why does this matter? It matters to me because I think we're setting ourselves up for trouble -- trouble certainly in how we relate to each other, but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves and our capacity for self-reflection. We're getting used to a new way of being alone together. People want to be with each other, but also elsewhere -- connected to all the different places they want to be. People want to customize their lives. They want to go in and out of all the places they are because the thing that matters most to them is control over where they put their attention. 
I like how Sherry Turkle puts it: We want to customize our lives.  Which is what I see even in students in my classes.  You warming up now?
Across the generations, I see that people can't get enough of each other, if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect: not too close, not too far, just right.
With the technology for which the smartphone is merely a forerunner of even smarter stuff coming our way, we are almost instantaneously editing our lives and our interactions with others.  But, this is far from the approach to understanding who we are--as individuals and as humans.
 Human relationships are rich and they're messy and they're demanding. And we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring. 
Are you with me now?
We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, "Why have things come to this?"
Exactly.  Why have things come to this?  What is the inner force propelling us faster and faster along this route?
technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We're lonely, but we're afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we're designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we're not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.
We are making life unnecessarily complicated for ourselves.  Instead of admitting to the awful burden that loneliness and working towards eliminating that problem, we seek the illusion of companionship that technology provides us.
 if we don't have connection, we don't feel like ourselves. We almost don't feel ourselves. So what do we do? We connect more and more. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be isolated.
How do you get from connection to isolation? You end up isolated if you don't cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don't have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we're not able to appreciate who they are. It's as though we're using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self. We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. But we're at risk, because actually it's the opposite that's true. If we're not able to be alone, we're going to be more lonely.
So ... any suggestions?

Really, you need suggestions after all the posts on such topics?  Tell you what ... nothing will be new in the following:
Start thinking of solitude as a good thing. Make room for it. Find ways to demonstrate this as a value to your children. Create sacred spaces at home -- the kitchen, the dining room -- and reclaim them for conversation. Do the same thing at work. ... Most important, we all really need to listen to each other, including to the boring bits. Because it's when we stumble or hesitate or lose our words that we reveal ourselves to each other.
Even to the boring bits.

We will put that to a test here.
Let me tell you about my ... hey, listen to me.
DO NOT run away from me ...


Anne in Salem said...

So . . . any suggestions? Yes, put down the phone, turn off the computer and invite your neighbors or coworkers or church friends or badminton team to dinner. Simple.

Kids are worst at this. I hear so often, not just from my kids, a preference for electronic interaction as a means to avoid human contact. The outcome of this election will be of miniscule importance if we have a generation or more who is unwilling to interact face to face or even over the phone.

Ramesh said...

No No. I am not running away from you. Its not fun to tune you out and check the gadget when you embark on your favourite topic, or god forbid, Nabokov. There is much greater joy in yelling at you and saying unprintable things (like Anne says - the gas pedal is on the right !!!!)

Man has always been uncomfortable being with himself. We have always needed company - either physically or electronically. I suspect its the same drive that makes people do the sort of things we have moaned about in the past.

So, yes, distraction free zones and focusing on who is physically with you is important. Equally it is also important to be comfortable just being by oneself.

Sriram Khé said...

"The outcome of this election will be of miniscule importance if we have a generation or more who is unwilling to interact face to face or even over the phone"

Exactly. Because, it is not the mere interaction, but, what these new human behaviors mean for our individual and collective understanding of what it means to be human and, therefore, the kinds of policies we will end up discussing and acting on ...

"distraction free zones and focusing on who is physically with you is important. Equally it is also important to be comfortable just being by oneself."
Am not sure what you mean here ... but, I will give you a pass only because you didn't run away ;)

IP-MD said...

Very good post!

BTW, the word in the first sentence should strictly be minuscule. But the spelling "miniscule" is also accepted. See:

Sriram Khé said...

Oh no, another grammar-checking, Queen's English speaking, reader ... and aiming at a Ivy League graduate at that ... oooooh, I can smell the coming of a battle in the wild, wild, blogosphere ... I better hide in the bunker until the dust settles ;)

Good to see you here after a while, IP-MD

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