February 6, 2009

Has technology extinguished both true solitude and real social life?

A big essay by Neil Swidley.


One Fine Jay said...

Just read the first page of the essay. It's a strong "yes," for me too. The other thing that technology has basically obliterated is privacy. It seems everything is everyone's business now.

Joe said...

Technology may have contributed, but it's not the core cause. Rather it's the rise and dominance of the extroverted, bombastic culture that is to blame. They have done more than insist that we all have group hugs and sing Kumbaya; they have made introversion and even disagreeing psychological disorders. Vigorous debate and argument is now seen and dealt with in the harshest of terms. Kissing ass has become institutionalized. One big reason; the people running the show--the extroverted, bombastic MBAs specifically, don't know anything and are protecting their position. Plus they really like the group hug, Kumaya shit and really do think anyone who doesn't is aberrant.

Anonymous said...

Define true solitude.

Oh, I suppose I should click the link, but how boring would that be? A clean quiet comment box is my version of solitude.

The move from city to country, as a nation, probably did more to get rid of 'true solitude' than the gizmos, but I have no data for any of that. Again, how boring would that be?

I'm kind of over the gizmos, myself, except the internets of course, and am in love with non-PC paper. Hey, I recycle so it's okay.

Ann Althouse said...

I compressed a very long essay into the shortest question I could make. I used "true solitude" to refer to the rich and positive experience that is not the same thing as loneliness.

Personally, I love solitude and I make a big place in my life for it. But I don't unplug, so maybe it doesn't count.

One Fine Jay said...

@Joe: "extroverted, bombastic culture that is to blame." Second that; I;m only 28 and an immigrant to boot but I have seen the celebrity ethos dominate our lives. The proliferation of tech makes it easier to find one's fifteen minutes of fame, but the crash usually leads to even more alienation and isolation. I am reminded of the absurdist movement in literature (esp. theatre).

Anonymous said...

The answer is: certainly - yes.

I read an essay once that opined that the advent of air conditioning in the homes destroyed our neighborhoods.

Instead of people sitting on their porch or being out walking, we all sit inside our homes now.

Kirk Parker said...

What is it with guys named Neil, anyway?

Chris said...

I love solitude too, but I live in the middle of a big city. I listen to car alarms, honking horns, loud music, dogs barking, people yelling on the street and trucks that drive up and down advertising services by megaphone. The nature of modern urban living does more to impinge on my sense of privacy and self than modern technology does. Sitting on a beach and feeling a sense of existential claustrophobia because you happened to bring your iPhone with you? Not even in the same league.

Original Mike said...

or on a remote beach, the world is a tap away.

Only if you choose. I regularily seek solitude in nature. I would not dream of bringing cell phone, etc. It really destroys the whole concept. Whether or not solitude is destroyed is up to you.

David said...

Only if you let it.

Michael Haz said...

Solitude is my most selfish indulgence. It is, for me, done best in the woods, on a lake, hiking, sitting at a campfire, or at home with telephones, fax machines, stereo, televisions and radios all turned off.

I control the technology in my life; it doesn't control me.

I have begun to drive without having a radio turned on. Very nice; not totally quiet, but solitude doesn't require complete silence.

Solitude is curative, healing, and calming.

I sometimes wear foam earplugs when I am at the gymm or in a mall. The sense of solitude and apartness from others while in a public space is remarkably pleasant.

Without setting out to do so, my group of close friends have come to enjoy our time together more if we all turn off the cell phones, turn off the music and television, and just talk with each other. Actual conversations without interruptions from insistent and intrusive technology! Very pleasant.

MadisonMan said...

The author's viewpoint is skewed, and the reason is right in the article. He's afraid to be alone. Embrace the true solitude in your life, and you'll find peace.

rhhardin said...

Give a bushman a camcorder and all the native rituals go to hell.

Joe said...

The most insidious piece of technology today is the cell phone. It not only intrudes into what used to be private or semi-private space (such as eating out) but it seems to have allowed people to become rude and to act insane (yelling seemingly to themselves while gesturing wildly.) One of the single rudest things is to be having an earnest (vs. bullshit) conversation with someone, having their phone ring, AND THEY FUCKING ANSWER IT. (Next up are the assholes who don't turn the ring off in places where it should be off.)

(I don't own a cellphone and have no plans to get one. Though a computer programmer by profession, I don't own a laptop either. Nor an MP3 player. I'm not being an iconoclast, I just don't see the point.)

Bissage said...

I skimmed Mr. Swidey’s essay to page six before I was reminded of an odd encounter that happened back when I was in my early twenties.

It was late afternoon in late autumn and I was killing time in the secluded woods near a park waiting for my girlfriend to get out of work. I was sitting on a rock and picking at a guitar when this very old German guy walked up.

I wasn’t in the mood to be bothered and he seemed like he might be a little crazy. I only half listened to him hoping he’d take the hint. But he kept going on and on prideful about his life story and how he was from the Black Forest and how he came to this country as a boy and he built his house with his own two hands and all that kind of stuff.

Finally, he finished with his droning and he started to turn to walk away and I finally looked up from the guitar and looked him in the face.

And I remember his exact words. “Stick with nature and all your life you’ll be happy -- and the women.”

Then he walked away.

True story.

Unknown said...

If you would, please take a minute or two and check out my actual candid thoughts on the stimulus package. I'm curious what your take is.


Shanna said...

One of the single rudest things is to be having an earnest (vs. bullshit) conversation with someone, having their phone ring, AND THEY FUCKING ANSWER IT.

That's a manners issue. We need to start teaching people manners again, and then alot of problems would be solved.

As for the original question, technology has it's pluses and minuses, but I disagree with the second part. You can use technology to have a real social life. It's just a tool. How you use it is up to you.

Bissage said...

Sure thing, Fake Barack, but first you tell me whether you liked my little story and whether I should have taken out the word “secluded” and gone with just “woods.” The event occurred, after all, in the suburbs.

Thank you in advance for your anticipated cooperation.


chuck b. said...

Yesterday I watched a documentary about the Apollo missions. Talking about the impact it had on his life, one of the astronauts said, "I'm never bothered by people anymore. I'm just really glad there are people." I found that very moving.

Just wanted to say so somewhere.

PWS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sigivald said...

Short answer: No.

People that want either can get either.

Perhaps the "problem" is that most (almost all?) people don't want "true solitude".

And since all a "real social life" seems to mean in his essay is "interacting with people in person", that's trivially easy to get for anyone who desires it (and does not have some sort of mental issue precluding it... which would be even more of a problem without such technologies).

In my experience, people use social networking technologies to organize parties.

PWS said...

Technology has made me appreciate my solitude more.

Leaving my phone / PDA behind makes me notice more: "Wow, no one can reach me easily."

Try walking on the beach w/o your phone gazing at the shells and listening to the water. There's more contrast with everyday life. I found it pleasantly organic, different, natural and relaxing. Your mind will follow slowly as it begins to "detach."

Original Mike said...

It's my observation that many (most?) people can't not answer their phone. It's a Pavlov's dog thing.

KCFleming said...

Good article.
I savor solitude. My work requires intense conversations with people about sad and life-altering diseases. By the end of the day I am happy to disconnect.

And that damned Baader-Meinhof phenomenon; I just met the "University of Chicago psychologist" they quoted about Loneliness, John Cacioppo.

ricpic said...

If technology has abolished both solitude and social life - a big if - maybe it's because human beings, for the mostpart, want neither one nor the other.

Shanna said...

In my experience, people use social networking technologies to organize parties.

Indeed. And having recently joined Facebook, that kind of techy interaction can lead to more "real" socializing and contact, because you don't lose track of people.

Solitude is easy to get, if you have the time and the inclination.

Lem the misspeller said...

No way!

Where would we meet Titus w/o the net? Where?

I say Titus has.. ahem.. grown on the citizen of Althousia.

Shawn Levasseur said...

Obliterating privacy?

Like others said, only if you let it.

And sure, some people are rather rude about how they use technology, but they are the exceptions. Its just that jerks tend to stick out in the crowd. Defining the culture by the jerks alone is a disservice to everyone else who manages to keep to proper etiquette.

By the same token, I find much of the hand wringing over using cellphones a bit overwrought. In an environment where openly having a conversation with a person is okay, I think it's perfectly okay to do it with someone over a phone.

True, SHOUTING into the phone is annoying. The microphones on phones these days are very good, and if the signal's bad, a raised voice does nothing to improve things (unless you're using the paper cups connected with string method of communicating)

Is it the fact that you can only eavesdrop on half the conversation that annoys some people?

All this said, I'm for the public flogging of people using cell phones in theaters.

ricpic said...

I don't know that this adds anything to your story, Bissage, but there's a big element of nature worship in Germany and the Scandinavian countries.

David said...

Bissage, it was Jeff Dahmer, with his fake German accent. He didn't follow his own advice.

Stephen said...

A thoughtful essay, but his principal lament sounds like the overweight person who blames the cornucopia of the local Safeway for his condition. There’s a quaint term—our sinful nature—that to me best describes our condition. In the affluent society we can indulge and over-indulge gluttony, sloth, greed, etc. Were we to update the list of the seven deadlies, surely we would add the desire to be entertained or intellectually stimulated (BTW, is there a single word that describes this “sin”?) I can choose not to have that midnight snack, but I do. I can go out for a morning run, but I don’t. I can pull the plug on my Wi-Fi . close my laptop, and turn off my iPhone, but I don’t. They are my treasures, and therein lies my heart

chickelit said...

I don't know that this adds anything to your story, Bissage, but there's a big element of nature worship in Germany and the Scandinavian countries.

There was a related movement in Germany called Thing (Not related to VW car). I've been to the Thingest├Ątte up in the hills outside of Heidelberg. It's a bit of a secret and an embarassment, because they built it for Hitler, but he never showed.

True Story

chickelit said...

This link does a better job of tying together nature worship, nazis, and other things.

Maxine Weiss said...

Happy Birthday, President Reagan !

Chip Ahoy said...

I went to a New Year party for the express purpose of meeting new people. Put on my best manners, conjured my awesome powers of social fluidity, and determined to engage everybody in the room and let my naturally occurring charm works its unique magic, mindful to listen carefully and agreeably build upon whatever my interlocutors would say. What I encountered was a rooms full of people entirely engaged with their cell phones. Some even examining the contents of their cell phones, complaining about pictures being erased by some party not present. I was so disgusted I left within an hour.

That is but one example of a gigantic change that technology has wrought. Actually, it's our use of that technology, and it flat pisses me off. I lose respect for the people who belittle me by whipping out their cells in my presence. Once or twice or when really needed, OK, but continuously, no.

Chip Ahoy said...

Fake Barak, Where do you want the comments, here? Must we register on your site to make comments on your blog or what?

The CAPTCHA on your site demands the letters it doesn't provide. The handicap button cycles back to the page. If you want comments, then make it easy to comment. I'm not going to register just to give my 2¢

Bissage said...

Yeah, Fake Barack, what Chip said!

And I still need to know whether I should strike the word "secluded."

Get with it!

Revenant said...

Has technology extinguished both true solitude and real social life?

Exactly the opposite, I would say.

Bissage said...

Thanks, ricpic, David and chickenlittle.

After that old man walked away, I pondered his advice and felt a deep, personal gratitude that he never annexed my Sudetenland.

Maxine Weiss said...

"I eat, therefore I hunt. I want to fill my freezer with good, clean, healthy protein for my kids. That's what I was raised on. It is abundant and it is available here in Alaska, with caribou and moose and different game and lots of very, very healthy and delicious wild Alaskan seafood. That's what we eat. So that's why I hunt and why I fish." ---Sarah Palin


Michael Haz said...

Fake Barack - Get off the lawn.

chickelit said...

he never annexed my Sudetenland.

That would have marked the anschluss of a life of depression and solitude had he done that.

Smilin' Jack said...

What I encountered was a rooms full of people entirely engaged with their cell phones. Some even examining the contents of their cell phones, complaining about pictures being erased by some party not present. I was so disgusted I left within an hour. That is but one example of a gigantic change that technology has wrought.

As Chip finally leaves, everyone puts their phones away and breathes a sigh of relief--"Thank God for cell phones--in the old days we could never get rid of that guy."

Unknown said...

@ Bissage:

Given that the story took place in the suburbs, close enough for you to wait for a person to get off work, in a public location, and someone else was there, then yes, I'd say that you should have excluded the word secluded.

However, I am confused as to what your point is. You have a right to comment and I don't?

As we are now, a world connected instantly, I've often said that technology has better enabled us to ignore each other. Honest connections are rare indeed.

John Gabriel (pseudonym not withstanding) established what he calls John Gabriel's Internet Fuckwad Theory, in which you take a normal, sane person, give them an audience via the internet, and anonymity, and they become a total fuckwad.

Often if you want to get an author's attention on a blog, you post on their most recent post when your comment will be most visible. I rather happen to enjoy this blog, and the author's opinions. I made a polite request for her to check out a link.

If the author doesn't like it, she can delete the comment, or tell me to fuck off. Neither has happened. Instead, someone unrelated jumps in and insists I must respond to your comment.

Perhaps you meant to insinuate that I was selfish and mock the behavior. Arguably, my request was self-serving, but one can argue most human requests are.

It is with great irony in a sea of comments about rude people due to technology, and an essay on how technology was expanded bad manners that you take it upon yourself to blast a random stranger for no good reason.

Frankly, I don't appreciate it.

And for what it is worth, your little anecdote doesn't make much sense. You were pissed off at a stranger trying to reach out to you, so you half listened to them rather than politely asking to be left alone. And they left you with a nugget of wisdom that you're weren't looking for.

Except that nugget of wisdom grammatically doesn't make much sense, so there are a variety of ways I can take it.

Unknown said...

@ Chip,

If the captcha isn't working, that would be Google who is providing the captcha. I will test it and report it. Thanks for letting me know.

However, the link I posted is on Blogger, same as this blog. If you have a Google cookie logged in at the moment, such as posting here, you should be able to seemlessly comment there.

I'm almost always logged into a Google account, and thusly can comment on any Blogger account without registering for anything, logging in, or seeing a captcha.

Are you sure you clicked on my link? I don't understand how going directly from one Blogger blog to another, you'd suddenly be logged out of your Google account.

Unknown said...

Make that seamlessly. I hate making typos.

George M. Spencer said...

"Has technology extinguished both true solitude and real social life?"

This is a good question.

At the moment, however, I bring to your global awareness the volcanocam located 7.5 miles from the summit of Mt. Redoubt in Alaska.

Thank you.

If you are reading this in the southern part of Alaska, you are advised to wrap pantyhose around the air intakes of all internal-combustion engines.*

*This advisory does not apply to jet aircraft.

traditionalguy said...

Our inner life is nourished in moments of solitude, away from business of coordinating with the social group tha supports, protects and approves of us. They are both necessary. Yhe whole one out of seven days doing nothing commandment was designed to meet that need. Now we just get out of town to the beach or the mountains to veg out and reconnect with God's creation. In the meantime yardwork and dogs will destress the organism a little. Cell phones and IM are todays mental games for the kids.

Zachary Sire said...

Hey Althouse, I knew you were on Atkins, but this is ridiculous.

(Via: this.)

Chip Ahoy said...

Ha ha ha, snort. Smiln' Jack, you so funny.

Actually, I have glee and joy and goodwill in my heart today because I got delivery on two things I've been waiting for. Dwarf hairgrass for the aquarium which was backordered for a whole month, so now the tank doesn't look so naked.

Also got the backpack for the camera. I'm delighted I don't have to hack it to fit in the longer lens without removing it from the camera each time.

Bissage said...

Often if you want to get an author's attention on a blog, you post on their most recent post when your comment will be most visible. I rather happen to enjoy this blog, and the author's opinions. I made a polite request for her to check out a link.

Fake Barack, you did not make a request to Althouse, alone. Our hostess has gone to a lot of effort to build a very special community of commenters here. The strong presumption is that any given comment is intended for anyone and this has been the norm for years. If you wish to speak only to Professor Althouse, you will find her address via her complete profile or under her blogroll. If you wish to leave her a message in the comments, you can use her name, expressly, as you did mine.

Perhaps you meant to insinuate that I was selfish and mock the behavior. Arguably, my request was self-serving, but one can argue most human requests are.

Congratulations. And one can also argue that Hitler was a sweetheart of a guy and that you are a fuckwad. So what? Bottom line: I think you’re a bad faith troll in the nature of a link whore. Your moniker is patently disrespectful and provocative. You must be both stupid and desperate. Work hard and you may yet succeed. You won’t be the first.

Now that we have that out of the way, you don’t care what I think . . . and neither do I.

Please do me (and yourself) a favor from now on. Whenever you see a comment that begins with “Bissage said …” skip right over it.

You don’t have the slightest idea where I’m coming from and I don’t want to feel at all, in even the tiniest little bit, responsible for your soul.

Unknown said...

Asking for an opinion on a link is trolling?

Your personal attacks are uncalled for, and way off base. I think it is a bit self-centered that my request was at you, or that the real purpose of posting in a person's blog is to talk to her famous community.

My moniker is not offensive. It is simply a descriptor. The real Barack Obama made an existing stink about being able to take over a community in his name. Any satire of Barack Obama must be exceedingly clear then that the poster is not actually Barack Obama (as if it that were in question).

It is also a loving homage to the Fake Steve Jobs blog, which I really enjoyed.

I have been nothing but polite, and yet you insist the worst about me. I do believe one person here is trolling, but frankly I have no desire to take the bait.

I'm not personally invested in a stranger's unfounded comments (with zero basis in reality) to get worked up over them.

However, I really do think you should examine the hypocritcal nature of your posts. You offered a lengthy anecdote with no point (that honestly reminded me a bit of a Bob Dylan narrative) and insisted that your post have merit, and that we should all pay attention to you, but other posters do not have merit.

Yet you want to call me out for selfishness.

You should note that I haven't plastered my link all over the internet, because I am not a link troll.

I've been making comments here for about a week (since I discovered the blog looking for other political opinions on Blogger) and I read probably 30 blogs before settling on one person whose opinion I wanted to solicit, and I gave her a link on my blog before requesting one from her.

In what universe is my behavior so unacceptable that you must go off on such a lengthy rant, exposing yourself in the process?

blake said...


Consider: You can have a buzzing coterie of constant companions--and coterie feels like the right word, because while there may be thousands of them, they're each part of smaller, specialized groups, scattered all around the world--and then you can turn them all off.

Being offline gives you a new kind of solitude. Your groups cease to exist to you, and you to them. (Try that with the voices in your head.)

From what I read, it sounds like the author dislikes how people are in touch, and manages to get a few to agree with him--but they (and he) wouldn't change their ways.

It's like bitching about cars versus horses, or interstates versus route 66, or anything else that gives us what we want faster and more reliably: We miss the incidental pleasures that visited us before.

But those things always look better in retrospect.

Anonymous said...

There are different ways to be alone.

buster said...

There is an ancient Scottish custom whereby anyone using a cell phone in a restaurant is dragged outside and beaten to death with it.

amba said...

I wrote a whole book in "we" once. It was not a good idea. And it forever after sensitized me to the phenomenon.

Just as a choice of writing strategy, it always makes me want to say, "Speak for yourself."

(But then, it's not like I could have a real life and choose to be online instead.)

I tend to think technology addiction has to do with fear of, or aversion to, direct human contact. It allows you to seem to relate to others while actually staying inside your own head and keeping control of the encounter as if it was only your fantasy. Yes, porn, but that's only symptomatic, or emblematic.

amba said...

"Non-PC paper" -- funny double-entendre!

amba said...

Writing in "you," not a great strategy either,I know.

amba said...

I have a cell phone, but I barely use it. (It's not a minicomputer-iPhone-camera thingy.) I put it on pay-as-you-go and it costs me next to nothing. I use it when I'm out and need to call back to my housebound husband. I ask other people to call me on it only if they can't reach me at home, where I usually am.

This suits me, not only because of the economy, but because it's probably not going to give me a goddamned brain tumor. I read John Gunther's Death Be Not Proud when I was about 9 and decided at that early date that a brain tumor was not what I wanted to die of.

blake said...

Just as a choice of writing strategy, it always makes me want to say, "Speak for yourself."

Meh. In writing technical stuff, I really, really, really like to avoid writing "I" all the time; I prefer to think that the reader and I are on the same side, that we're going through the same process, to achieve the same end.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Fake Barack-

I have to agree with Bissage here, maybe not in every detail, but at least in general.

Posting off-topic comments is usually considered poor manners.

Posting requests for people to read your blog posts is usually considered poor manners.

Doing both in one comment is almost always poor manners.

If someone here is a frequent commenter, and well known to the other readers, they can get away with one or the other on rare occasion, because they are a familiar part of the community. ( Now that I think about it, some frequent commenters seem to post nothing but off topic. ) As you say, you are relatively new commenter here, so your comment feels more intrusive.

Note that I'm only speaking for myself, and acknowledge that I have no authority to police someone else's blog.