Thursday January 21 2010

Losing the ability to be alone

I just read The End of Solitude (January 2009) – an essay by William Deresiewicz that examines two sources of emotional ennui unique to the modern age: boredom and loneliness.

It’s a long piece, but here’s the chunk that struck me most:

There is an analogy, it seems to me, with the previous generation’s experience of boredom. The two emotions, loneliness and boredom, are closely allied. They are also both characteristically modern. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations of either word, at least in the contemporary sense, date from the 19th century. Suburbanization, by eliminating the stimulation as well as the sociability of urban or traditional village life, exacerbated the tendency to both. But the great age of boredom, I believe, came in with television, precisely because television was designed to palliate that feeling. Boredom is not a necessary consequence of having nothing to do, it is only the negative experience of that state. Television, by obviating the need to learn how to make use of one’s lack of occupation, precludes one from ever discovering how to enjoy it. In fact, it renders that condition fearsome, its prospect intolerable. You are terrified of being bored — so you turn on the television.

I speak from experience. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, the age of television. I was trained to be bored; boredom was cultivated within me like a precious crop. (It has been said that consumer society wants to condition us to feel bored, since boredom creates a market for stimulation.) It took me years to discover — and my nervous system will never fully adjust to this idea; I still have to fight against boredom, am permanently damaged in this respect — that having nothing to do doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The alternative to boredom is what Whitman called idleness: a passive receptivity to the world.

So it is with the current generation’s experience of being alone. That is precisely the recognition implicit in the idea of solitude, which is to loneliness what idleness is to boredom. 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. If six hours of television a day creates the aptitude for boredom, the inability to sit still, a hundred text messages a day creates the aptitude for loneliness, the inability to be by yourself. Some degree of boredom and loneliness is to be expected, especially among young people, given the way our human environment has been attenuated. But technology amplifies those tendencies. You could call your schoolmates when I was a teenager, but you couldn’t call them 100 times a day. You could get together with your friends when I was in college, but you couldn’t always get together with them when you wanted to, for the simple reason that you couldn’t always find them. If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the Web generation. We lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness. They have lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude.

Since leaving a job at Last.fm, I’m spending a great deal of time alone. Without formal employment, my waking hours are malleable and my working habits ad-hoc. I’m not working in an office, and I live far enough away from my social hub that going out is an effort. And it’s an effort I’m less eager to make because I’ve grown used to my solitude.

I’ve always enjoyed my own company, and freedom has made me more productive. But I’m not really alone.

I’m still plugged in to the social hub—remotely. I rely more on glancing contact. Growl, menubar notifiers, IRC highlights, an ever present IM contact list.

Any one of the above flickering to life triggers an urgent reaction. I’m snacking on human contact all day. I haven’t read a book for months. I read that essay though. I can’t sit still for long enough to write this blog post. I copy/paste instead.

I am the modern man.

Comments welcome via email or Twitter