The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes. MARCEL PROUST

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. WILLIAM BLAKE

Wanderer, there is no way; the way is made by walking. ANTONIO MACHADO

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Solitude And Communion

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

I live in the heart of it, and it’s normal to walk through a crowd — on a train, or a group of young people waiting to eat in a restaurant — in which everyone is staring at the tiny screens in their hands. It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.

REBECCA SOLNIT Diary from London Review Of Books Vol. 35 No. 16

. . . now it's hard to get through a meal with friends without somebody reaching for an iPhone to retrieve the kind of fact it used to be the brain's responsibility to remember.

JONATHAN FRANZEN Saturday Guardian Review 14-09-13

Nice, Solnit's word 'shallow'.

Are we in danger of losing access to the humanly important, life-enhancing states of 'solitude and communion'? We certainly have to work harder to achieve them. And they are, in my view, deeply necessary.

Just a few observations.

I know someone who walked the Pennine Way with his earpiece incessantly feeding mediaspeak for the whole trip.

The other day, as I strolled round a beautiful nearby town on a gorgeous sunny afternoon, I tried to estimate how many people were smartphoning and iPadding. My guess was 70%. They were doing it alone, in couples and in groups, in shop doorways, sitting on benches in parks and railway stations, standing, walking, running.

And am I the only person who thinks it's rude to tweet and text at mealtimes and in intimate company? (I may be quite out-of-date here, as I've noticed how many people now seem able to integrate the new technologies with ease into social situations, multitasking quite naturally.)

14 comments:

Ruth said...

You're not alone.

That passage from the Solnit article stood out for me, too, especially, "it seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand" on the handheld device.

On 9/11 this year I was remembering with someone that I walked across campus a couple of hours after the planes hit, and every single student was on a cell phone, hunched over, trying to get close to Mom, Dad, someone who could reassure them. The person I told this too responded, "And in 2001, it was unusual to see every student on a cell phone."

I also remember (I may have told you this before), riding a train from Dublin to Cobh, and a student tourist had his earbuds in, listening to music, while next to him, across the seat from us, was an older Irishman singing. Ah, what a loss.

Wendy said...

I will come back to re-read as I just stopped by briefly - but wanted to sheepishly admit to wearing earbuds while out walking - but they're not plugged in to anything (never!) except my shirt pocket and I only ust them when I'm on one of my meditative, silent, walks in which I want to be excused from greeting every jogger and dog-walker. They dangle for the walk except when I see another person approaching...

Unsocial? Probably. But also doing what I can to maintain a moments' peace, intentionally.

This is only at most 1 out of 10 or 15 walks, so I'm not a total anti-greeting bore. :-)

Bouncing Bertie said...

No. I too think it's rude to tweet and text at mealtimes. And I think it's rude when I drive someone somewhere and they spend the whole time on their smart phone communicating with someone else rather than talking to me. (I refuse to countenance the possibility that they might just think my talk boring!)
Cheers, Gail.

The Solitary Walker said...

Ruth — your anecdote about the singing Irishman is revealing, and a telling image of our ostensibly communicative yet oh-so-uncommunicative times...

Wendy — nothing wrong with plugging in to different worlds! It's a question of balance and frequency, isn't it?

BB — hey, we are not alone! If your talk was boring, which I very much doubt, it's still an affront for someone to switch off so blatantly. (Anyhow, I was taught to endure boring travelling companions with good grace... at least for a short while... but that was in the 'old days'...

George said...

When did devices become more than just devices? When did they become gods? Lovers? Confessionals? Whatever the case, they are disguised thieves who are robbing us of solitude, communion, civility, discernment, and various other cornerstones of sanity.

There was a time when people could walk through the streets and at least acknowledge each other's presence with a gesture, a smile, or a short conversation. Those types of engagements gave one a sense of belonging, a sense of community. In today's streets, however — or, for that matter, almost any public place — people are literally mesmerized by the technology they hold in their hand. Their glazed eyes are fixated on the rapid dance of pixels, or they stare into the distance as they proclaim their thoughts to everyone in hearing range. Madness, I say, sheer madness! Let the revolt begin!

The Solitary Walker said...

George, your passionate comment has a revolutionary zeal which is contagious. Let the revolution begin right here! Even on the designated 'quiet coach' in a train from London the other day, I was forced to hear the intimate details of someone's love life and business life at close range. Such insensitivity to one's surroundings! Such invasion of others' personal space! Bring on Ruth's singing Irishmen, I say — and let's party, even if it's the last dance in hell...

Rubye Jack said...

It seems there is already a bit of backlash going on - at least in the circles I run in. Mostly older folks looking for a simpler lifestyle.

The Solitary Walker said...

I agree, Rubye — there's a quiet revolution going on, and some people (of all ages) are seeking simpler, less materialistic, less stressful and more fulfilled lives.

Goat said...

A friend of mine in Brisbane who was single for a very long time finally scored a date with a woman - I think they "met" online. Anyway, on that first non-virtual meeting, at an outdoor bar downtown, she spent a great deal of time texting one or more friends or acquaintances while he sat there nursing a drink and wanting to pour it all over her. He decided it was not a relationship worth pursuing.

I think those of us old enough to remember life before the internet and mobile phones etc are fortunate (or cursed?) in that we had to adapt to them and try to accommodate them to standards of politeness that we enjoyed. Whereas Gen Y-ers and those younger have grown up without any alternative and apparently most of them have no problem with a lack of etiquette that appalls us.

But if you think it's bad in the West, you should observe a gaggle of plugged-in Korean school kids walking to school in the morning. It's like The Walking Dead without the flesh-eating - regrettably.

The Solitary Walker said...

I'll decline the Korean experience, Goat! (Though I suppose it would be good to observe in a
Man-from-Mars-visits-Earth kind of way.)

Your anecdote about the Brisbane love affair which never got going is a tale of our times.

Cris M said...

Thank you! Between this post and the one you posted on "distraction" I feel your blog is like a support therapy group!
I am the one who normally ask to "put your phone down and let's share this moment", and I have to say it is not rare to be told something like "it' s nothing, I am ***just***..." as an answer (when my request is listened, of course!). So if this is "just...", then it is probably not as important as to be where you actually are.
For me it is quite confusing the slogan of "real time", you are missing the real experience for posting a few meaningless words somewhere to receive the "like" of others... it is like filming a whole singer show with the mini camera to then post a quality video in youtube... wouldn't it be much worthy to enjoy the date, the film, the conversation, the amazing music *being 100%* there? What would occur to us if we decide to be 100% present experiencing what we are living in the moment? Perhaps we would be much more conscious of our real lives and less about the one we intend to disclose to everybody else...
Warm hug,
Cris

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for your long comment, Cris!

Goat said...

Another sad tale of our times: internet commenters: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/09/the-case-for-banning-internet-commenters/279960/

The Solitary Walker said...

It's a difficult one, Goat. Ban comments, and it's undemocratic and against the free spirit of the Internet. Allow everything in, and you have to put up with the garbage, the idiocy and the insults.