I've been doing a lot of mulling regarding over our ever connected world. A few months ago, when I reset my phone, I purposely did not install Facebook because I felt I was constantly checking it. Not in a productive way, but in a way that was there to pass the time. I installed Instagram though and found myself using that more often anyways. The constant pull of the latest updates, the stories, the need to post was getting to me.
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I recently picked up Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World and can definitely relate to the author and I agree with many of his points. Partly for me, I've been struggling to find this balance of Minimalism and Mindfulness. While I've gotten rid of many things which I no longer have to maintain and manage and I've consciously made it a point to connect with people offline and to the things that I want to do, I do still find myself constantly feeling the need to connect online. Partially because I'm also a blogger and the nature of that work is to connect, observe and report on some of the things I'm seeing. Full disclosure too that I work in media, marketing and advertising and work with others to help them understand social media for business. So that is where my dilemma and personal confusion also lies.
The New Normal
The author Michael Harris does a great job pulling examples from history of how us humans and our relationships with solitude has evolved over time. The obvious of course has been the invention, introduction and reliance of the internet, but even the invention of books and letters gave new meaning to solitude.
A long time ago, people gathered by the fire to listen to stories, then the printing press was invented and it allowed people to spend time by themselves reading. A new kind of solitude was born.
For animals, "there's a time for resting, a time for hunting, a time for courting, a time for hiding. For us humans, though, it's more complicated than that." The advancement of the internet has changed the way we interact with each other. Social media is a constant updated feed in our daily lives. We are connected, but not really.
Hariss askes the question: "Has social media made us socially obese – gorged on constant connection but never properly nourished?"
I say yes. Some of our online connections can be so superficial because it can often be just a passing wave in the stream of constant updates.
I see a lot of correlation with this to food as well. So much food, yet so little nourishment.
The Internet of Things
You and I know that we now live in a world where everything is on the internet. From our watches to our fridges to our TVs, everything appears to be connected to each other. We are all Dick Tracy now carrying our gadgets. We are so connected that sometimes we fear looking at strangers in the eyes. Instead, we like their latest posts, comment on their comment, but say "Hello" to them on the street and we feel exposed. Strange!
Is disconnectedness a sign of malfunction? It seems absurd to think so, but note your reaction when you meet someone without a smartphone or someone without a Facebook account or someone without an entry in Google. You are appalled and shocked. How can you live in such a world without a Google trail? It seems impossible and slightly heretic.
Strangely enough, it is our connectedness that has created new modes of working and interacting in today's society. The constant creation of content means "many platforms do not pay anything for this labour, but the joy of sharing, we are assured, will be it’s own reward. This is an extremely powerful arrangement for the platform owners…" We are mostly content creators and content consumers. Without this interplay, we wouldn't have the urge to log on. This then goes to the statement that "for the media baron hunting for short-term profits, a daydreaming mind must look like an awful waste. All that time and attention left to wander, directionless!"
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My husband and I had a discussion recently about Waze, the navigation application. On initial thought, it is a map that provides directions, but if you look closely, it contains an algorithm that determines traffic patterns crowd sourced from people and provides the best route to take. On this particular day, we were traveling on a highway that was heavily trafficked. Waze recommended we get off the highway and take the local street parallel to the highway. All well and good because it moved faster, but as I looked at the map and the other people traveling, I could tell that other cars were being directed to re-enter the highway even though there was traffic and our particular route had us joining the highway miles away. My thought on this particular day was if Waze was somehow splitting users into set groups and sending one group a different route, all the while calculating traffic patterns as the cars moved. This to me felt very much like something else was in control of our actions (which as with all navigation was the case), but sadly we were all OK with no relying own instinct allowing AND trusting Waze to determine and calculate for us. As the author noted, "Google Maps actually allows our wayfinding skills to atrophy. And wayfinding is inherently human."
This may be the reason why I always get lost now because with my reliance on Google or Waze, I stop paying attention to street and road markers.
Additionally, if you've used Waze, they made the application like a game that requires contribution from users to be fun. Instead of paying attention to our surroundings, we are now very busy tapping on items on a screen for our route. In the future, Harris suggests that any of the route recommendations will all be based on past data and perhaps, stores and points of interests will only be shown if we have shown affinity for them.
Similarly, the rise of recommendation engines and algorithms can sometimes be a downfall to us. There was discussion that many of our point of views are so myopic thanks to Facebook and other social platforms. Social platforms are built to take your data and past interactions and curate items that you will like. This was the case during the 2016 Election in which people only saw what news items that confirmed their beliefs. With this confirmation bias, it was difficult for people to believe, understand and even get to know other points of view.
Same thing when you open up Netflix, Amazon or YouTube, the recommendation engines keeps you from going outside of your comfort zones and continuously offers suggestions for what you "might" like.
So what happens then, in a similar fashion to our "wayfinding" instinct atrophying, our growth is too. We remain in our bubbles, kept entertained by what an algorithm tells us that we should like, never venturing out. This in the end keeps our ideas static.
The Case for Solitude
Even in the early years, solitude is not seen as something positive.
The author notes three main benefits from solitude: to generate new ideas, to better understand ourselves and to connect better with others. And that it's often better to let the child wander and to explore on their own so that their own instincts kick in.
1. …the greatest benefit of solitude is its ability to engender new ideas
The author cites that in solitude is where we develop the "creative habits – journalling, doodling, daydreaming – that lead to original work." It's best that the mind is allowed to wander and self-regulate.
I absolutely agree with this. With space from the constant stream of updates, I find myself wondering about things more. I'm not quick to jump and check something on the internet. Instead, I get a chance to think about things, mull it over and really get to know if I understand things.
2. Some people are only lonely because they don’t know how to be alone
Solitude then is learning and understanding yourself without the constant feedback from the outside world. We need time to think things over, to feel what we are going through and learn why we react to certain things in certain ways. Solitude is truly about the self. What areas of the self do we need to improve and solitude provides us the space to complete true introspection. We fear solitude because we don't know anything else. If we've constantly been connected to something as early as a baby and we are getting that constant feedback loop, getting no feedback can be disheartening and sad and without any proper training or self-regulation we feel lost.
I see this happen with social media. I feel disappointed that no one "liked" my picture even though the people in that picture are literally in front of me and we have a chance to connect now in real-time. I'm lucky to have grown up before the internet was big and at least can differentiate life before and after.
To be happy alone is to affirm one’s faith in the love of others
There's an interesting example in the book in which the author cites that even the act of letter writing (pen and paper) which is mostly done in solitude in itself show confidence in one's self and confidence in one's own faith in others. To be able to write to a lover or friend and waiting days for a response means trusting in others. Without the quick reply or the quick feedback of a Like, we let go of the pangs of waiting for acceptance. Without that dopamine rush from a win in Candy Crush, a like on Facebook or a comment on the web, we learn to put our trust in others that they will still be there for us despite of the absence. By distancing ourselves and creating room for solitude, we allow our own belief in others to come through as we await patiently for a reply.
Of course, harder said than done, but possible.
My Own Experiments with Solitude
I know myself to be a introvert. The word "introvert" can sometimes mean anti-social or even shy, but the true definition of an introvert is someone who gets energy from solitude. Whereas an extrovert gets energy from lots of other people, an introvert will most likely feel an energy drain when in a large crowd.
For me, I know that large group gatherings can sometimes be overwhelming so I opt for small group settings. I may also attend events as long as there are a few select people I can connect with. After large group gathering, I always find myself needing some quiet space for me.
Lately, I'm trying more and more to disconnect from social media as a way to get back to true solitude. You'll still see me on social media but on any given day I am doing the following:
- Going for a walk without my phone. No headphones, no smart watches. Nothing. Just me and my thoughts. Now this doesn't necessarily put me in true solitude because I encounter people along the way, but it is re-training me from needing to constantly check my phone for any and all updates.
- Spending the last hour of my day off social media. Since I don't normally watch TV, I occupy this time with some reading. This month, my monthly project is re-learning how to draw and sketch which I am now doing for at least 30 minutes.
- I turn off all notifications on my phone with the exception of the calendar. So I won't see a new email or a new comment or anything of the sorts until I actually open the app.
- I've been in between actual books and eBooks, but after reading this particular book (yes, the irony!) on my Kindle app on the phone, I am going to go back to actual books. When I was reading directly on the phone, I still had this need to post something or check something related to the book. This was definitely easier to do since I could just close my Kindle app. This did not lead to a good reading experience for me. It's strange how this came about because I never had this problem before. So moving forward, I am going to stick with actual books from the library and keep my phone at a distance.
- I'm being more honest with my need for peace and silence. It's not that I'm wanting to be anti-social or that I don't love people any less, it's that solitude makes me more whole and that in turn allows me to be there more fully for others.
- Lastly, I'm looking to step out in nature a bit more. Even our Sunday trips to the beach this summer helped in some way re-train my thoughts and pull me away from needing to connect in the online world.
With these exercises, I hope to increase my focus and reduce my reliance on the internet. Of course, the internet does provide me my livelihood so I can't fully get away from it, but I am hoping that my absences from it means I am more focused each time I log on.
All quotes except where cited are from the book Solitude.
How about you? Do you believe that solitude is good for you? How have you worked solitude into your Minimalism and Mindfulness practices?