As I See It: Abiding Solitude
May 13, 2013 Victor Rozek
Arguably the most memorable part of the movie Cast Away is watching Tom Hanks slowly going mad from an excess of solitude, eventually befriending a Wilson volleyball. Conversations and arguments ensue, and even though they’re one-sided, so deep is Tom’s character’s longing for a connection that an inanimate object is preferable to the terror of prolonged aloneness. If only Tom had texting.
Since the advent of the Internet, the business of assuaging loneliness has reached a feverish pitch. Self-help books and bars have been displaced by social media and pornography. And if connection is the new frontier, there are few boundaries that remain uncrossed by the phenomenon of texting. From classrooms to boardrooms, pizza parlors to funeral parlors, the muted clicking of opposable thumbs can be heard throughout the land. Womb to tomb, everyone is either reaching out, or waiting to be contacted.
The need for connection has spawned its share of surreal remedies, none more disconcerting than the burgeoning field of social robotics. There is a high probability that in countries with aging populations such as Japan and the United States, charismatic appliances will soon be the primary caregivers for the aged. Not to worry, when people quit listening to us, machines will fill the void–just like Wilson, but with likable features and artificial intelligence.
Sherry Turkle has been studying human interaction with technology for the past 30 years. She is of a certain age; young enough to unreservedly embrace technology, but old enough to know better. Accordingly, she approaches her research with a scientist’s curiosity and a skeptic’s caution. Over time, her enthusiasm for technology became tinged with concern, and she now believes that our technologically amplified search for connection has pretty much jumped the shark.
Turkle is no idle blogger. Qualified and accomplished, she boasts a PhD in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard, which she parlayed into a position at MIT. There, she founded the Initiative on Technology and Self. Like all good Harvard-educated professors, she has written the obligatory stack of books, the latest of which is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. But unlike most Harvard professors, her books have actually been read by people outside the academic bubble, and she has become something of a scholastic rock star, making numerous TV appearances, giving radio interviews, TED Talks, and even gracing the cover of Wired magazine.
But that was before Turkle started publicly worrying that our addiction to communication devices is not only changing what we do, but who we are.
Wisdom, it is said, comes from seeing the paradox, and computer technology provides more than its share. The gadgets we rely on have become indispensable, yet they quickly become obsolete. They appear undemanding, yet encourage compulsive behavior. They allow us to be in touch, but jeopardize our right to stay out of touch. More than ever they allow us to be connected, and more than ever we feel alone.
The problem, according to Turkle, is that we’ve lost the capacity for solitude.
“I do studies,” she says, “where I just sit for hours and hours at red lights, watching people unable to tolerate being alone. It’s as though being alone has become a problem that needs to be solved, and then technology presents itself as a solution.”
If solitude begets fidgeting, discomfort, and anxiety (not to mention the eventual befriending of volleyballs), it should follow that human contact–of the face-to-face variety–would be the preferred alternative. No longer, says Turkle. Conversations have become dangerous because they’re unpredictable. “There’s no editing, no delete key.”
Turkle asked teens and adults why they preferred text messaging to one-on-one conversations. “You can’t control what you are going to say,” was the common response, “and you don’t know how long it’s going to take or where it could go.” Opting for control, however, has a steep price, according to Turkle. Face-to-face interaction teaches “skills of negotiation, of reading each other’s emotion, of having to face the complexity of confrontation, dealing with complex emotion.” It’s not surprising that volatile emotions often find expression in isolation. From the standpoint of civility, the presence of the other is an inhibiting factor. Aggression and rudeness, shaming and belittling, are less likely to occur face-to-face. We behave better in public than we do when consequences are minimal and human beings are reduced to digital abstractions.
Texting may seem safer, says Turkle, but it robs people of emotional connection. But it also restricts understanding. Words only comprise 7 percent of a communication. Meaning is found in body language, vocal tonality, and the space between the words–none of which can be gleaned on Twitter.
More significantly, the motivation for reaching out to others has been inverted. Connection, argues Turkle, used to be driven by the desire to share a feeling. “I have a feeling, I want to make a call.” Now connection is driven by the desire to have a feeling: “I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.” Descartes’ adage “I think therefore I am” has been updated to “I share therefore I am.” Each text carries with it the burden of creating personal value and psychological visibility, a lot to expect from 140 characters. But is anyone really listening?
The angst implied in that question speaks to the obsessive allure of instant communication. Turkle, who confesses to sleeping with her cell phone, admits that “what is so seductive about texting, about keeping that phone on, about that little red light on the BlackBerry, is you want to know who wants you.” Over and over, apparently. But compulsive device-checking reveals more than curiosity: It also identifies the person who so desperately wants to be wanted.
One of the unintended consequences of texting is that everybody lives with a false sense of urgency (What if something happened? What if someone had to get in touch with me? What if my child needed me and I missed the call?). We work ourselves up to an artificial state of high alert, life lived at DEFCON 4, which only amps up the anxiety between texts.
It’s a reflection, says Turkle, of our inability to be alone. Solitude is a place of inspiration, replenishment, and purification; a place to be immersed in the fullness of self, rather than the absence of others. It is where we begin to know ourselves; to experience our own feelings, examine our own thoughts, question our own beliefs. And that requires turning down the static. “If we don’t teach our children to be alone,” says Turkle, “they will only know how to be lonely.”
Thoreau, no stranger to his own company, confessed that he “never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” The average digitally connected, Android-packing, texting-addicted teen must wonder how Thoreau could possibly have endured even one day of the “deliberate” life on Walden Pond.
Who knows, maybe he talked to volleyballs.