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Manufacturing loneliness

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Wednesday, Feb 11, 2009

“The End of Solitude,” William Deresiewicz’s recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, is well worth reading, though I probably would have given it the title I gave this post. Deresiewicz’s argument (simplified for effect) is that just as TV prepares us to be bored, the internet intensifies our loneliness.


I’m sympathetic to the idea that solitude is this cherished opportunity for soulful meditation that we are tragically losing, but I think there’s also something snobbish in that framing—maybe because it is associated with ultra-egotist Romantic poets like Wordsworth. (A love of solitude can sometimes seem to imply that one feels an inherent superiority that makes the company of others tiresome.) It seems bogus to presume that only in solitude is wisdom hatched, as Thoreau’s example is used to demonstrate. It’s a species of the great man theory of history, that presumes geniuses operate in isolation to shape the destiny of worlds. It seems more likely that social frictions produce ideas that individuals express and take credit for. Maybe solitude is necessary for noticing those frictions and framing coherent thoughts about them, but the romantic idea of people getting in touch with their real selves outside of society is pure ideology.


Besides, solitude is not simply available for the choosing for everyone—as Virgina Woolf pointed out, a room of one’s own is a privilege. An ability to appreciate solitude in the high-minded sense is probably a part of the habitus of the middle and upper classes. There’s an art to being alone. It’s often an elegant pose.


The problem is less that we don’t respect the concept of solitude anymore and more that the internet makes us self-conscious about our pseudocelebrity; it invites us to imagine we are celebrities and distorts our relationships accordingly. We start to scheme for recognition rather than rest more comfortably in the recognition we are already receiving from those close to us.


Anyway, Deresiewicz wants to divide the recent past into eras based on technology.


I grew up in the 60s and 70s, the age of television. I was trained to be bored; boredom was cultivated within me like a precious crop. (It has been said that consumer society wants to condition us to feel bored, since boredom creates a market for stimulation.)


As for the theorists who have been banished to obscurity by the passive voice in that parenthetical, I assume that Deresiewicz has in mind sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu, who argued in Distinction that “the ethic of liberation” may be “supplying the economy with the perfect consumer.” These consumers “are isolated…and therefore free (or forced) to confront in extended order the separate markets (“juniors,” “teenagers,” “senior citizens,” etc.) of the new economic order and untrammeled by the constraints and brakes imposed by collective memories and expectations”—traditions from family life and that sort of thing. That seems right to me—the status hierarchy, confronted with emerging consumerism and democracy, yielded a situation in which marketers could exploit the idea of liberation to leverage insecurity. The migration of sociality to the internet is giving them a new playing field, a way to make us feel lonely in the midst of more communication than ever.


Deresiewicz continues:


So it is with the current generation’s experience of being alone. That is precisely the recognition implicit in the idea of solitude, which is to loneliness what idleness is to boredom. Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence. The lost sheep is lonely; the shepherd is not lonely. But the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom. If six hours of television a day creates the aptitude for boredom, the inability to sit still, a hundred text messages a day creates the aptitude for loneliness, the inability to be by yourself. Some degree of boredom and loneliness is to be expected, especially among young people, given the way our human environment has been attenuated. But technology amplifies those tendencies. You could call your schoolmates when I was a teenager, but you couldn’t call them 100 times a day. You could get together with your friends when I was in college, but you couldn’t always get together with them when you wanted to, for the simple reason that you couldn’t always find them. If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the Web generation. We lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness. They have lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude.


Solitude has been transformed into loneliness by the prevalence of tools that make it possible for us always to be connected. The tools assume an always-on status, so we do too, whether or not we need to. Why? Deresiewicz is not clear on this point, but I would chalk it up to technophilia, expediency, and social norms that have evolved to reproduce consumerism. (It has been said that consumer society wants to condition us to feel lonely, since loneliness creates a market for communications.)


At some point, if this line of argument is correct, the capabilities of a particular technology begin to be experienced by users as a kind of compulsion, a command. Because you can text your whereabouts at all times to your friends, you should do so. Because people can be contact you always, when they aren’t, it can begin to feel like a slight. Let’s say you post a comment on a friend’s Facebook status update and they don’t acknowledge it, even though you can see they are online. You shouldn’t take that personally, but I know I would. It’s one of the things that makes social networking hard for me. It’s bad enough checking an email inbox. Something about knowing people out there on line could be paying attention to what we are doing can bring out the borderline personality in all of us. I see that someone I hardly know but have friended on Facebook is online, and I have this awful urge to write a new update, just to see if they’ll notice. This feeling is what I understand Deresiewicz to be talking about when he talks about manufactured loneliness.


The immediacy of the new medium for friendship sets friendship up on a customer service model, on which we are encouraged to expect immediate satisfaction on our own terms, since we are paying with that newly scarce currency, our attention. This commercial reciprocity threatens to preclude the possibility of the gratuitous reciprocity of friendship. The customer is always right, but the customer is always alone.


Deresiewicz rightly points out how the internet once relieved feelings of social isolation for misfits. And refuges still exist where people can find each other. But social networks seem to undermine that kind of alternative connection, importing the norms of high school to the online space that once afforded an escape. At the same time, real loneliness—the soul-sapping sense that there is no one to share your thoughts, your life with—is trivialized by the new loneliness, of not getting a text from your BFFs every five minutes and not having enough followers on Twitter. Worse, Twitter and Facebook are tacitly offered to us as cures for real loneliness, with the implication that if you still feel lonely despite these great commercial social-networking tools, there must really be something wrong with you.

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