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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

January 26, 2009

THE IDEA MILL: THE END OF SOLITUDE

William Deresiewicz, Chronicle of Higher Education - What does the contemporary self want? The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge - broadband tipping the Web from text to image, social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider - the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. . .

We live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. . .

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?

To that remarkable question, history offers a number of answers. Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value. In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few. Through the solitude of rare spirits, the collective renews its relationship with divinity. . .

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. . .

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. . .

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. . .

Young people today seem to have no desire for solitude, have never heard of it, can't imagine why it would be worth having. In fact, their use of technology - or to be fair, our use of technology - seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude, a continuous attempt, as we sit alone at our computers, to maintain the imaginative presence of others. . .

Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence. The lost sheep is lonely; the shepherd is not lonely. But the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom. . .

Solitude isn't easy, and isn't for everyone. It has undoubtedly never been the province of more than a few. "I believe," Thoreau said, "that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark." . . . But if solitude disappears as a social value and social idea, will even the exceptions remain possible? Still, one is powerless to reverse the drift of the culture. One can only save oneself - and whatever else happens, one can still always do that. But it takes a willingness to be unpopular.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, I (far past teens and twenties) would be driven stark raving mad if deprived of adequate hours of solitude for contemplation. Solitude is like an essential food group that sustains me. It's where you "re-calibrate"...where you return to yourself - where you realize how much we just throw ourselves into whatever society is doing and let it carry us along, never taking time to consult our own inner guide, our own thoughtful sense of things going on in our culture. The irrationality we're awash in, exposes itself through sitting still and quieting the noise all around.

But I have to take issue with this sentence from the article:

"Still, one is powerless to reverse the drift of the culture."

I don't believe that. Leadership and Culture changes when people's ideas change (and not until), and I still think it's possible that working for equality of humankind despite inequality of gifts won in the birth lottery can effect the change of ideas we must have to restore our chance to have a future.

Solitude restores my strength and conviction to keep up the grassroots campaign for equal pay for equal sacrifice. It is our insane and suicidal system of paying most people extreme underpay in order to pay a few extreme overpay, that must be dealt a final deathblow, and this will happen when enough people have learned what the principles of pay justice are - and that there ARE principles of pay justice! - and have therefore changed their "world's worst bad idea" to allow this extreme, extreme economic injustice. It is all the legal thefts being allowed in the world that results in all the violence pollution that ricochets around in our world, getting to everybody in this unique modern age of highspeed transportation and communication.

If our species makes it, it will be because we finally murdered the idea of allowing unlimited personal fortunes capitalism from the majority general consciousness, and replaced it with pay justice capitalism.

January 27, 2009 11:32 AM  

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