on solitude (and injury).


This gem of a busted shoulder happened while I was riding to work yesterday morning, thinking about my first blog post after a long hiatus (I got off relatively easy – fracture, no surgery necessary… I was doored, of course). I had just been listening to an episode of KQED’s Forum featuring William Deresiewicz, author of a recent Chronicle article titled “the End of Solitude.” In this piece, Deresiewicz laments the repercussions of pervasive connectivity, likening it to the eradication of alone time. He maps the progression of silence to solitude to isolation to loneliness against the backdrop of religious, philosophical, and economic change. In the rise of social networking and microcommunication he locates the modern desire for minicelebrity, which he characterizes as an almost compulsive need to be known and affirmed by one’s community. His treatment of the subject is eloquent and interesting, although his underlying message should by now be extremely familiar to anyone who pays attention to emerging technologies and youth culture – the glut of communication and access methods prevents real relationships from developing, and young people have lost their ability to reflect. These are well-argued and compelling points, but like all generalizations they obscure as much as they bring to light. I tend to reject generational arguments because they are based on imagined commonalities, but one such argument is true – the old have a tendency to complain about the young, and the young have a tendency to completely disregard the old while making newfangled things look vexingly effortless.

My original response to this article was going to be predictable – yes, too much connectivity is bad, yes, brains and manners change as gadgets work their ways into our lives, yes, it is becoming difficult to avoid the presence of others as one moves through the day. But even if we/they interact via more channels and create relationships in ways distinct from earlier generations, we/they are not losing our/their souls from too much texting. Hyperconnectivity is simply characteristic of the times, and young people are more able to gracefully integrate new media because they have less baggage of past habits weighing them down. By virtue of their age, they are certainly more likely to push whatever they are doing to its limits, often creatively. There is as much diversity in the way young people consume technology as there are demographic, cultural, and economic factors that determine their levels of access to it. There is also no such thing as a pervasive digital youth culture – Living and Learning with New Media, a recent MacArthur Foundation whitepaper on the subject, is refreshingly clear in their contention that there are many such cultures, and it is not productive to assume common characteristics among them.

My personal insight into technological and social alienation is well informed. A few months back I reflected on my state of relative isolation during my time in Ohio – I lived in the woods with no internet, no cellphone, no television, no close neighbors or roommates. My life became a sort of case study in the various shades of alone – for two years I cycled through loneliness, solitude, reflection, contemplation, independence, and so forth on a daily basis. It was as difficult as it was amazing. In my tech-focused job at the OU Library I simultaneously experienced the other side of the coin, living essentially both of  the extremes Deresiewicz describes. At work I was ultraconnected, at home I was ultraisolated.

Upon moving to California, I found myself totally resubmerged in interaction. In the middle of what felt like a melee bracketed by palm trees, I realized that the adjustment was going to be extremely difficult. I had become more used to isolation than company – I had always thrived on communication at work, but in my home life in Ohio I taught myself to be very comfortable with the relative silence of crows, the wind, and NPR. I now live in the heart of Oakland , surrounded at all times by elbows, car alarms, helicopters, the Tai Chi soundtrack in the park, etc. I have internet at home for the first time, which vastly expands my digital community but is a gigantic challenge on the productivity front. I ride bikes to Berkeley five days a week, which around campus is essentially the urban equivalent of the “shrieking typography and clamorous imagery” that Deresiewicz finds on a MySpace page. One of his final thoughts (from Walden, no surprise there) is that the dark side of isolation is its tendency to decrease one’s ability to be social. He is absolutely correct – affability is as much a learned skill as industry, and it rusts just as quickly if you leave it out in the rain. Six months out of the woods, I’m still searching for what is left of my ability to make small talk, and am constantly trying to not be distracted by city sounds.

Before I broke my shoulder, I was simply going to argue for the middle road – aloneness is still possible, and technological balance is the way to achieve it. In Ohio, I sought out the social side of my life, and in California I seek the solitary side. I truly believe that all people consciously or unconsciously search for the inside own their own minds in the way that best suits their context. This is what is most difficult to perceive and accept – that for the up and coming, the changing definition of solitude is a blip on the radar. They are writing their own definitions of independence and community, and by virtue of the freedom they seek will probably not stop to explain either unless we ask… nicely. The army of vacuous, book-fearing digisocialites does not exist, nor will it ever. If young people are losing something due to media and technology saturation, they a) probably don’t notice or care, b) are gaining in ways we might not imagine, and c) will adapt as beautifully as humans always have to the diversity of lived experience.

Although it may seem like a stretch, this is a serendipitous topic on the day after a bonebreak. The injury has offered me an unexpected angle on isolation and connectivity. Until yesterday morning I would have been somewhat hard-pressed remember the most positive aspect of ubiquitous human company – community, even when it is comprised of relative strangers. Because I live in a city, after I catapulted off my bike and landed on my shoulder instead of laying there until I could scrape myself off the street I was immediately surrounded by people I didn’t know who took care of me. They called an ambulance, kept me from getting up, picked my stuff up out of the gutter, took charge of my bike. The poor student who doored me held my hand, and after the ambulance left walked over to the library to tell my boss I was probably not coming into work. I could just have easily been disregarded, but in this instance community worked.

Had I crashed my bike in Ohio, I’d still be dragging myself out of the holler. And as for the gadget that prevents me from being contemplative? En route to the ER, my iPhone (unfazed by the hard landing) allowed me to look up numbers, addresses, and accounts for the paramedics, see how far we were from the hospital, text my partner about what had happened, and when I got to Kaiser instead of sitting there broken and bored I read Moby Dick via Stanza, a free e-book application that gives access to Project Gutenberg titles. Don’t get me wrong, having internet in the house still drives me crazy sometimes, and I have a ways to go before I’m comfortable with this amount of social and digital immersion. However, whereas before I might have been more inclined to agree with Deresiewicz, the “end of solitude” actually did me several good turns yesterday. It hurts like hell, but I’m pleasantly surprised to find that hand-wringing is much harder to accomplish while wearing a sling.

15 thoughts on “on solitude (and injury).

Add yours

  1. What a wonderfully contemplative post to wake up to! I struggle with the same issues of constant connectivity and often find myself trying to run away screaming. I never get very far out the door.

    I’m glad to hear that a caring crowd assembled to help you out. The image of community coming together and to the aid of another human being, albeit a stranger, makes me realize that life in the city isn’t always so cold and isolating. Since moving from a small southern town to Los Angeles about two years ago, I’m often nostalgic for a community comparable to what I left behind.

    Get better soon. I look forward to the next post.

    1. thanks, john. i know what you mean – it’s a total push/pull, particularly once you’ve experienced being away from the grind for a bit…

  2. just felt a mix of delight and concern.

    the first for the beautiful post. one day i’ll get to tell you in details my experience of moving to a neighborhood where people are able to help you, greet you even when they don’t know you, and bring a thermos of fresh coffee to your door when they know you can’t make your own, yet.

    not to mention the day i was trying to ride a motorcycle and fell (it was a silly fall); i was very embarrassed when i realized the entire block was out by their gates offering help. luckily, i was able to get back on the bike and ride back home having only a knee bruised.

    on the other hand, this is all too much involvement with people i’m not sure could be part of my “friendship circle.” and when one has to be at home working and getting involved with personal projects, how much of human involvement can be accepted? to me it’s tricky to be able to dose solitude and interaction.

    as for my concern… i don’t need to say much about it. i hope you are well. if you need any herbs from the amazon, let me know!

    1. i appreciate it, ana. as for herbs from the amazon, i think at this point i’d rather go for that beer on the beach you’re always talking about.

  3. Thanks for a great response to Deresiewicz’s article, made more layered by your rumination shoulder.

    I found his comments on a lack of solitude to be somewhat perplexing, as what resonates with me is the removal of focused attention. Solitude is the state in which so many of us use our gadgets to reach out, true, but I don’t see its loss in the connective opportunities we have. Though, the forced multitasking and the difficulty in focusing on one thing is a sad loss. (E.g., I get so much more reading done on an airplane, with no internet or phone to be easily had.)

    It’s wonderful to hear that this connectivity can and will foment uses in ways can’t begin to guess, by adaptable and fearless humans.

    It’s also nice to know that it allows us to comfort ourselves and alert others in a time of crisis, and that real community still pops up in unexpected ways.

    1. both true and typically supple, shannon. re: focus, i always work on my ability to filter things out, either by force of will or by forcing earplugs into my ears. sadly, i’m one of those who instantly falls asleep when i hear white noise, making airplanes and noise-canceling headphones totally counterproductive…

  4. Hey Char,

    First, I hope that your shoulder is continuing to heal! And we should talk about whatever work your bike needs….

    I also heard Deresiewicz’s interview with Krasny, and it intrigued me enough to read his Chronicle essay. Thanks so much for your reflections on the article, which helped me to sort out some of my own positive and negative reactions thereto. I agree with your comment that he works with generalizations and that he rises and falls with the strengths and weaknesses that come with generalization. On the one hand Deresiewicz describes something we’ve all observed: a younger generation’s loss of the ability to focus in a sustained way. On the other hand, he completely misses the empowering dimensions of that technology. His invocations of Walden, of the Romantic tropes of aloneness and introspection, and of Trilling’s classic _Sincerity and Authenticity_ remind us that these are genres with some contribution to contemporary arguments – for this I thank him – but at the same time I have doubts about the way he privileges solitary over communal intellectual activity, thinking alone over thinking-with.

    If his story of the decline of solitude left me somewhat noneplussed, I was completely convinced, however, by his assessment of the “decline of privacy” and the growing dominance of a new version of publicity in our daily lives. The internet offers so many versions of celebrity in a minor key, and so many ways to be “seen,” that I worry about the loss of the art of simply dwelling with oneself. Publicity and privateness are akin to sexuality in the sense that our society is obsessed with maintaining strict control over both. I reflect on these things often, given my academic work on the phenomenon of the public intellectual, and I am increasingly convinced that we are living with an insufficiently critical enthusiasm about the public dimensions of life, and an insufficient understanding of the virtues of privacy. So part of me wants to pull with Deresiewicz’s version of the Romantics, even as another yearns for technological improvement and – I’m an unashamed futurist in this regard- the linking of minds.

    Your post also brings up an issue that I think Deresiewicz doesn’t do enough with: community. In your reflections on life in Ohio and Oakland you remind us of the way in which our attitudes towards technology, the public and the private have a great deal to do with our background ideas about the nature of community life and our investment in it. I don’t think its evident that the internet offers healthy or unhealthy versions of community, but its quite obvious that it does offer something unprecedented and new.

  5. ben, thanks for your sharp comments. i especially appreciate your dead-on insight that his article misses the contributions of technology to communities of thought/endeavor. as for whether it’s “focus” that’s lacking among the younger generation, my personal jury is still out. i wonder whether the collective frustration of educators, parents, and other easily ignored and/or boring figures of authority hasn’t finally located the perfect scapegoat for this phenomenon – it’s not us with the problem, it’s all the distractions! this may just be my inner/outer/all over texan talking, but for my money it’s more likely a lack of manners.

  6. I’m too knee-deep in the solitude that accompanies this ridonk thing called “grad school” (whose idea was this??) to respond with the clarity and expansiveness this post deserves. But I did want to drop by to say thanks for a lovely meditation.

    1. glad you liked it. all my favorites seem to be responding, which is thanks enough for me…

  7. Char, I totally agree – its a matter of distraction, and of course also manners, not just in the “those kids today” sense but also in a substantial one. Looking forward to the next post, and keep healing –

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