Yesterday, I came across a fascinating piece by William Deresiewicz in The Chronicle Review, the magazine insert of The Chronicle of Higher Education. “An End To Solitude” examines today’s technologies and the resultant connectedness granted us by cellphones, texting, Facebook, twitter, and blogs like the one you’re reading now, and then asks what’s happened to the idea of being alone with oneself: the value of meditation and rumination, of solitude as a place of reflection and renewal or as an incubator for the growth of wisdom. While many of us talk about how Facebook has changed the nature of what friendship means (sometimes talk on Facebook about it!) or how we all connect and relate, Deresiewicz offers a broader view, drawing on the vast history of man and sampling novelists, critics and philosophers — Socrates, Emerson and Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Lionel Trilling, Marilynne Robinson — to examine what solitude has meant and what it means now.
A quick answer: We used to value it; now we fear it. But that quick answer hardly does justice to the provocative power of this essay — something I’d encourage everyone to read.
The two paragraphs below are excerpted from the middle of the essay, just after the author’s examination of how the Romantics and then the Modernist authors reacted to the rise of the great cities:
“But we no longer live in the modernist city, and 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.”