This essay examines modern culture, specifically our desire as a society to avoid being alone and to use technology in order to ensure constant companionship, even if it’s only virtual (and often somewhat superficial). Deresiewicz also believes that this fear of solitude and its partner, anonymity, is the driving forces behind the current cult of celebrity. Today, it isn’t just movie stars who are famous or even reality stars like the Kardashians. Thanks to YouTube and Facebook, everyone can become “known” for something. There is no such thing as bad publicity, only the terror of no one paying attention.1
Deresiewicz is plainly troubled by this trend. He expresses the opinion that not only is technology “taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is taking away our ability to be alone.”1 He offers examples of teenagers who send thousands of text messages each month, of students he knows who cannot be alone even when they’re supposed to concentrating on studying. He acknowledges that this trend started decades ago, thanks to the telephone and the television, the two great electronic inventions of his generation. At the same time, he points out how computers and the ubiquitous smart phone have taken our fondness for electronic stimulation and turned it into an obsession, with the unfortunate result of creating a world where people are easily bored and almost totally unable to go within themselves for either intellectual or spiritual benefits.1
It can be argued that Deresiewicz is correct in fearing that the modern plugged-in society no longer allows for the wisdom of the hermit or the mystic. It can also be argued that even leaving aside all spiritual benefits, new technology is isolating us even as we long to be connected. However, there is always the possibility that Deresiewicz is playing Chicken Little. The sky didn’t fall when the automobile and the movie theater changed social interaction forever; it didn’t fall when families quit playing Chinese checkers every evening and gathered around the television instead. Perhaps this trend is nothing more than societal growing pains.
Is there a danger that the current plugged-in society will eliminate mystics or religious seekers? It’s hard to make that argument. From the Dali Lama to Catholic theologians, there are still people who seek within themselves for spiritual enlightenment, whether that involves traditional Christian teachings, Buddhism, Hinduism, or something as relatively new and “fashionable” as Kabbalah.2 Even in the Middle Ages, for every figure as Julian of Norwich and St. Theresa of Avila, practicing recluses who communed with God and wrote about their experiences, there were tens of thousands of ordinary people who were simply trying to stay alive.3 Of course, it should be noted that many of these individuals were illiterate, and Deresiewicz makes a definite connection between literacy and the quest for “the divine voice” as he calls it.1 If all those peasants had been able to read, perhaps they would have focused more on the invisible and less on the physical world.
Leaving aside the issue of spirituality, Deresiewicz continues sounding the alarm, blaming suburbanization for the new threat of loneliness and the accompanying boredom that often results. He notes with some validity that instead of neighborhoods where kids go out to play, we have gradually created individual houses separated by big yards, each containing a child or two tethered to a television screen or a computer.1 Deresiewicz goes on to observe that even though technology can bring people together, too often nowadays, it becomes a numbers’ game. How has the most friends on Facebook? Whose video has the most hits on YouTube? He is right in observing that, “Visibility secures self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection.”1 He voices the concern that while people in their 30’s and 40’s at least still want genuine intimacy, the next generation after them may become completely comfortable with living in a virtual social group, never alone, but never touching, either.1
However, is this picture truly as dark as Deresiewicz would like to paint it? He admits, “Solitude isn’t easy and it isn’t for everyone. It has undoubtedly never been the province of more than a few.”1 Just as the mystics of the Middle Ages and later thinkers such as Thoreau made the conscious decision to separate themselves from the herd, it is not likely that today’s philosophers and seekers after truth make the same conscious choice? It’s certainly true that some people take being connected to an extreme. At the same time, there is also data that indicates that once the novelty of new platforms for social media wears off, the number of users begins to decline rapidly. Both Facebook and Twitter are dealing with this issue, and how many people have a MySpace page today? 4 If familiarity breeds contempt, then social media in its present form is doomed. While Deresiewicz makes some valid points, people who crave solitude will still find it, just as people who need to feel connected will continue to seek out ways to do so. Our society still offers a place for both the introvert and the extrovert, the thinker and the socializer.