Admittedly, I read Solitude with a very strong bias.
I absolutely love this topic. Even though I worked in the technology field for years, there are times when I definitely see it as a curse rather than a blessing. Technology gives the appearance that we are more connected with hundreds of “friends” and always in the know about what’s happening in the community or the world around us. And yes, being connected is a good thing. But not at the expense of solitude. Or the expense of stillness. Look around you in the grocery store or at a traffic light. The default behavior is to look at one’s phone rather than have a few moments alone with one’s own thoughts.
But author Michael Harris does not preach on this topic as I tend to do. He backs it up with solid research for each of his arguments. It’s rare that I mark up the notes section of a book, but his references are compelling and invite further study.
The uses of solitude
We are motivated to have people like us. And when our primary connections are done through the computer instead of through face-to-face, we can be more strategic about how we present ourselves to other people to have even more people like us.
Not only do we want to be liked, we also have a compulsion to be available. Roughly half of Americans now sleep with their phone on their bedside tables. In today’s world, not being connected and intentionally choosing solitude is abnormal. Until we see the value in solitude, we will not seek it. But we have to get away from the crowd in order to even know who we are and we cannot get away from the crowd when we choose to constantly be connected.
Harris presents a research-backed argument for the benefits of spending time alone.
Bolt from the blue
The norm in the modern, trendy environment is collaborative working and learning. Many businesses now have an open floor plan and glass walls to ensure people are staying connected. This implies the need for solitude is no longer even seen as beneficial.
And this connectedness expands beyond the workplace. Look at some of the popular games, such as Candy Crush, which have no meaningful purpose to them. Games like these speak to a culture that is no longer able to just rest and relax. We’re constantly looking for something that we can do to either show off our accomplishments or receive some sort of external validation.
“We don’t play Candy Crush so much as get played,” writes Harris.
I was shocked to learn that Candy Crush reached 1.6 billion daily game plays in the beginning of 2015. The game offers repeating loops of pleasure that drive people to keep playing over and over again to get just the smallest hit of dopamine. Humans look for repeating patterns which these game makers are only too happy to provide.
Silicon Valley – the center of our tech world – can incite this addictive behavior even better than Las Vegas. Both play to our response to intermittent rewards, yet Silicon Valley has machine learning and algorithms on its side to learn how to make things even more addictive.
The forward to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has a quote that seems to sum all of this up quite nicely:
“In an age of advanced technology, inefficiency is the sin against the Holy Ghost.”
What technology has come to tell us is that solitary thinking and time alone are not worth anything.
Who do you think you are
Emoticons and emojis are characters we can use to add a smiley face or some other simplified expression to our written communications. They offer a limited list of feelings from which to choose rather than needing to truly describe what we are feeling. This only adds to the pressure to conform as we no longer even need to find the words to express ourselves; we can just pull from a stylistic catalogue to quickly express how we feel.
We not only express emotions in a societally approved way; we also share who we are in a way that is socially acceptable. Social media platforms provide analytics showing us when people respond to what we post by liking or sharing it. Once we see what gets attention and affection from others, it influences us to continue posting more of that rather than things that reflect our authentic voice. Our posts are not really about us but they are about responding to the positive feedback of other people.
Even the things that we think we like have become crowdsourced, rather than a reflection of who we truly are. As we spend time on Netflix or Amazon, the suggestions presented for the next video or purchase are based on crowdsourced info and data crunching. The sad truth is that we essentially let other people make decisions for us.
I can’t be too quick to criticize because it’s clear why this appeals to so many of us. The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz discusses how the amount of choices before us can result in a feeling of paralysis. As a result, we go with items that are seemingly “perfect” for us because we become trapped in “algorithmically defined notions” of what a computer tells us we like.
We miss opportunities to discover new things and expand our horizons.
Even a decision about where we’re going to go physically is decided by others through the form of Google Maps. It’s a combination of where we want to go and corporations that have established a digital online presence. When we have a place we need to get to, we just follow what Google Maps tells us to do, like a zombie. We lose the need or perhaps even desire to explore as we let Google tell us what the world looks like and what part of it we should see.
Although my preferred form of communication is face-to-face or phone and I abhor text messaging for ongoing communication, I can understand the appeal for communicating via text. You can obsessively edit and sanitize it until you present yourself in the best possible way, and a tool that forces people to think before “speaking” is probably a good thing. All of us would benefit from a self-imposed filter at times, but does it impact our ability to truly connect with others when our communication is in the well thought out written word only?
Anyone touched by technology – in other words, everyone – would benefit from this book. Whether you are biased like me and have a deep appreciation for solitude, or you do not know what you would do with yourself if you were truly alone, this book is for you. My hope is that even the die hards who sleep with their phones will reflect on the insight shared by Harris and recognize that solitude – even in short bursts – is a privilege we all have and can learn to appreciate.
Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World
By Michael Harris
Thomas Dunne Books
Hardcover: 272 pages