Following last week's post about 'being alone together,' I ran across the May edition of The Atlantic; its cover story: 'Is Facebook making us lonely?' Turns out, it isn't, but this is an interesting read about trends toward alienation, even as we are more connected. In sum, 'Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves. Casting technology as some vague, impersonal spirit of history forcing our action is a weak excuse. We make decisions about about how we use our machines, not the other way around.' (p. 68)
What does it mean to be 'alone.'
In his New York Times Best Seller, Hamlet's BlackBerry, William Powers draws the distinction made by philosopher Paul Tillich between loneliness and solitude. Powers writes, "the word 'loneliness' exists to to express 'the pain of being alone,' while 'solitude' expresses 'the glory of being alone.' When we think of our greatest learning, our deepest connection with who we are, we recognize that along with elements of loneliness, we may have experienced the great 'glory' of solitude with our own self. This reminds me of a dear friend and personal mentor, who kayaked from Washington state to Alaska alone, as he says, 'to find out if he liked the person he was traveling with.'
The irony of new forms of self-expression is the constant tendency toward conformity. Powers puts it well. 'Society is constantly throwing up obstacles (to solitude), telling us that we're worthless without the crowd, that everything is riding on its approval. In a country built on ideals of individual freedom and autonomy, one might think such messages wouldn't get much traction. But freedom can be a heavy burden, and in a certain sense, the more we're responsible for managing our own destinies, the more appealing conformity becomes.' (p. 42)
I like Powers' book a lot and highly recommend it. In fact, it was the book I intended to write during my sabbatical. I proposed writing a 'practical philosophy for a connected world,' which is precisely what Hamlet's BlackBerry is. I discovered his book about 3 months before leaving for Cambridge. Bummer! But, better to find it before attempting to do a better job than he has done. Besides, now I can spend more time on my blog. ;-)
For a great video on the subject of solitude vs being out there with the crowds, see Susan Cain's TED Talk on 'The Power of Introverts.'