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.