There’s a Crowd on My Desk
By M. Allen Cunningham
The other day I killed my Facebook account. It was easy. It felt terrific. Granted, I’d only been a “user” for a few months. My defection was motivated, in no small part, by Facebook’s recent Initial Public Offering, and the corresponding news about Zuckerberg and Co.’s ramped-up analysis and sales of personal data (mine and yours) for its own and others’ profit. Such flagrant privacy violations seemed a smidgen too much for this Facebook newbie to stomach. But my main reason for clicking that comical self-vaporization button, “Delete My Profile,” had to do with the fact that, being a writer, I’m an inveterate introvert. I get uneasy whenever I consider certain implications of habitual Internet or social media use.
In his 1848 work Principles of Political Economy, John Stuart Mill observed:
It is not good for a man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character… [and] is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without.
Mill’s words ring antique today. “The cradle of thoughts and aspirations” notwithstanding, we can’t simply turn off our cell phones, let e-mails go unanswered, or abandon online networking and promotional efforts, can we? Still, Mill’s concept of solitude as an indispensable, humanizing trait is one that’s been reiterated for centuries by the most influential minds of civilization. From the 16th century, Montaigne assures us:
It is not good enough to have gotten away from the crowd, it is not enough to move; we must get away from the love of crowds that is within us, we must sequester ourselves and regain possession of ourselves. … The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to ourselves.
Thoreau, that sultan of solitude, cautions in his posthumous 1863 essay “Life Without Principle” that “When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip.” Televised marriages/parenting/cat fights? Check. He goes on to say, “I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” A century and a half later, his sentiment feels downright contemporary.
It seems to me that these guys, all artists themselves, are talking most directly to the artists among us. Yet in contrast to such enduring voices, the present cultural clamoring of social media and Reality TV relentlessly sends two subtle messages. First, being alone amounts to inferiority and embarrassment. Second, being unknown amounts to worthlessness and disgrace. As Dave Eggers observed beautifully in his book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:
We’ve grown up thinking of ourselves in relation to the political-media-entertainment ephemera, in our safe and comfortable homes … how we would fit into this or that band or TV show or movie, and how we would look doing it. [We] are people for whom the idea of anonymity is existentially irrational, indefensible.
You are worthy or desirable, insists the culture of today, inasmuch as you can demonstrate acceptance by others via circuits and cables (or in the case of Reality TV, as long as you can remain a contestant and avoid getting kicked off the show). Similarly, we hear it alleged: You are valid, you are real, inasmuch as you publish evidence daily — even hourly (Twitter, anyone?) — of your existence, your validity.
But there’s a paradox here, which is this: Even as we crave to abolish isolation and seize proof that we exist, the selves we wish verified may actually become less and less singular or unique, at least in the principle realm we use to verify them, the Internet. Online we are more isolated than ever, but without the soul-shaping benefits of real aloneness. Why log on unless you hope to connect with somebody, or at any rate feel connected to the buzz of the day? Granted, the Web is more than minute-to-minute media, but you get my drift.
Online we live in the thick of one another’s quasi selves, what writer Neil Postman called “a neighborhood of strangers.” And however manifold are the activities we initiate or the bytes of information we access on the Internet, the medium demands that we stare at a screen, and therefore it cannot enable individuality. To the contrary, as Lee Siegel pointed out in his 2008 book Against the Machine, screen-time acts as a force of psycho-physical leveling. To stare at a screen is, for everyone who does it, the same experience.
Individuality, personality, and independent thought are conditioned not by the acquisition of information or fiber optic “access” to others, but by varied experience, i.e., away from the terminal. This is a truth at the heart of the imaginative life, and thus at the heart of a creative discipline such as writing. Even as we writers try to keep this in mind, however, we’re up against a perplexing frenzy of distractions.
Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World envisions a blissful and soulless future “paradise” cleansed of societal “ills” such as individuality, books, religion, marital life, and yes, personal solitude — all in the interest of Industry (read: economic superiority), Harmony (read: societal conformity and obedience), and ceaseless Pleasure (read: distraction).
The Huxleyan future is no authoritarian dystopia, of course. Rather, it’s a smoothly functioning society whose citizens, as far as they can imagine, couldn’t be happier or more productive. All are prosperous, well fed, pleasantly medicated, entertained, sexually promiscuous (it’s the norm, “everybody belongs to everybody else”), and desire nothing other than what’s offered to them by their station in the societal hierarchy. The key to their collective health and harmony is the eradication of individual desire through systematic “conditioning” begun at birth. A crucial component of this conditioning is an uninterrupted involvement in communal life, a forbiddance — and inculcated horror of — solitude.
The following bit from the novel describes this culture of mass-identity:
The group was now complete, the solidarity circle perfect and without flaw. Man, woman, man, in a ring of endless alteration round the table. Twelve of them ready to be made one, to be fused, to lose their twelve separate identities in a larger being.
Now, for kicks, let’s fiddle with Huxley’s wording. Let’s put his future citizens around the globe instead of the table. Let’s make them many billions instead of twelve. Lastly — ready for this? — let’s change “solidarity circle” to Internet.
I’ve brought us dangerously close to modern heresy, I realize. The Internet as we know it is much more fractious than Huxley’s gray-eyed group-think. At its best, articulate debate defines it. But the point remains that we relinquish something quintessentially human — and, for us writers, something integral to the mindful processes of creation — in being constantly logged on, accessible, and vulnerable to the manipulation of our focus and the depletion of our attention-spans. “Being online,” suggested Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies, “and having the subjective experience of depth, of existential coherence, are mutually exclusive situations.” Meanwhile, the work of selfhood — the cultivation of personal, psychic, and spiritual independence which can yield brilliant and idiosyncratic artistic breakthroughs — will remain, as ever, inescapably tied to solitude and its concomitants: privacy, slowness, inner quietude, and anonymity.
In a 1968 interview in The Paris Review, John Updike alluded to the locales that tended to foster his best writing: “A few places are specially conducive to inspiration — automobiles, church — private places.” It was an offhand remark, not unique for its time. But in our present cultural context does it not sound practically eccentric? Private places? Today, we give over more and more of our waking hours to a realm that is not and never can be private. As we all know, the Internet engenders connection-addiction, a constant transplanting of the self from its real, palpable world into the virtual hive life and its maze of information stimuli. While online, I get addled, jittery, ill-at-ease in my own skin. The undesirable effects are much like those of strong pharmaceuticals.
I’ve discussed the issue with friends, and there tends to be a consensus — in face-to-face conversation anyway, and increasingly in the greater cultural dialogue. Jonathan Franzen reportedly relies on a special Internet-avoidance technique while working: he disables his computer’s wireless signal and seals its Ethernet port. “We are driven,” wrote Neil Postman in Technopoly, “to fill our lives with the quest to ‘access’ information. For what purpose or with what limitations, it is not for us to ask; and we are not accustomed to asking, since the problem is unprecedented.” Postman was writing in the early 90s. Today, in our Web 2.0 age, one can easily imagine Postman suggesting that our latest technologies drive us to deplete our own personal, psychic, and spiritual independence.
Meanwhile, by contrast to our ever-worsening jones for constant technological communion, we may still reflect that a primary benefit of being solitary is that it facilitates being, that natural state of the soul in which you find yourself “in the moment,” as they say. Right here, right now. And art-making — perhaps most obviously the art of writing — is all about being in the moment. Montaigne pioneered the personal essay while sequestered in a gothic tower. Thoreau’s unclassifiable work of genius, Walden, resulted from a two-year stint alone in the woods (which was itself simply a supplement to his lifelong habit of solitary country rambles). Like the generations before us, we modern mortals need to be re-set on a regular basis, reconditioned to the natural, non-mechanical pace of the world and of our own creative souls. As Updike states, and as Franzen’s Internet-deprivation tendency would suggest, privacy and solitude facilitate inspiration.
Predisposed as we are to move our thoughts, our inner lives, our reading habits further online — and thus further into the public technological sphere — it is only healthy to pause and consider: Where goes our sense of self, our ability to be alone, think alone, believe alone? Where goes our propensity for discipline and self-reliance, for creating a thing solely because we believe, down to our human core, in the thing’s intrinsic value — even if it should never be seen by anybody else and thus never elicit praise, profit, or prestige?
On the rear flap of an old edition of J.D. Salinger’s novel Franny & Zooey I recently discovered the following impish testament, penned by the novelist himself, and well worth framing above one’s desk: “It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second-most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.”
Today we may ask: What if Salinger’s proverbial writer faces a perpetually compromised anonymity, a lack of solitude precluding the blessings (yes, blessings) of obscurity? Say the young writer is — if not famous in the traditional way — then “socially famous” on Facebook or MySpace; say he’s got 962 “friends” whose irresistible avatars dispel his focus hourly; say he’s engaged by thirty-seven e-mails daily; or say, instead of recording his thoughts and imaginings in the privacy of a paper-bound journal, he blogs these things to the world and then spends his days patrolling reader comments?
Interaction is apt to become the raison d’être of our time. We rate our technologies first by the efficiency with which they allow us to reach another person and gather data. And quick, even instant measurability of that efficiency is a chief advantage of online media. Send an e-mail, get a response. Build a website, then tabulate “unique visitors” and hits per day. Set up a Facebook page, count your friends. Despite certain pragmatic advantages afforded by these tools, they are ultimately a bane to writers, for within such a hyper-social, data-driven ethos, it appears to follow that endeavors failing to serve the ultimate utilities — i.e., connection and measurability — call for abandonment. How, if steeped in social media culture, can one still conceive of spending three to seven years writing a novel in the quiet of one’s study?
In a 2011 Harper’s interview, Zadie Smith confessed, “When I am using the Internet, I am addicted. I’m not able to concentrate on anything else. … I use Freedom [the Internet-blocking software program], I put my phone in another part of the house, it’s pathetic. Like a drug addict. I put it in a cupboard so that I can write for five hours.” Smith is not alone. The Freedom software website boasts praise from the likes of Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Nora Ephron, and Miranda July. “The gods are just,” wrote Shakespeare in King Lear, “and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us.” (Huxley was so fond of the line he included it in Brave New World.)
The Internet, TV, and mass media in general promise to save us from ourselves. Solitude is now completely avoidable. But how does such avoidance impoverish us writers — our creative process, our craft, our productivity? We know very well the benefits of social media — and yes, these have their place. But what are the costs? What do we lose when we trade in our anonymity?
We are each also separate, each solitary, each alone in our own room, each miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood. To remember this, to hold oneself apart from society, is to begin to think one’s way beyond it. … No real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific, or moral, can arise without solitude.
The spirit of the age notwithstanding, we may possess in our solitude, our anonymity, our inwardness and interiority, the precious resources that have produced and sustained the best and most enduring cultural creations of the ages. No matter how popularly devalued these resources grow to be, no matter what suspicion or scorn each may come to arouse, we ought to hold them dear — we writers most of all.
Further Links & Resources
- We really want to hear your thoughts on solitude, but these blog posts show how a writer could reclaim the usefulness of certain online time-sucks, with moderation, of course: 10 Social Networks for Writers + Facebook: The next e-book publisher?
- We already miss Morgan Macgregor online (she jumped ship and now you can’t even get to her shuttered blog, Reading In L.A.), but her 2011 essay in The Nervous Breakdown, “I’d Rather Be Reading” gives you some grist for the “What am I going to do with all this alone time?” mill.