William Deresiewicz wrote an interesting essay titled The End of Solitude in the recent issue of Chronicle of Higher Education. Please go read the entire thing when you are done here.
Deresiewicz argues compellingly that we are all losing something in our race to be ever more connected. I find this interesting because this is exactly the inverse of the concern that troubled an earlier generation of intellectuals: the rise of mass culture. Just after the end of WWII when most Americans lived either in cities or what we would now call inner-ring suburbs the idea that our culture would cause us to lose any sense of individuality was rampant. That’s why The Organization Man is the book that best defines the mode of existing in the 1950s while serving to warn of the problems that might arise from that existence.
Deresiewicz notes that mass culture is no longer a threat because
we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. What technologies of transportation exacerbated — we could live farther and farther apart — technologies of communication redressed — we could bring ourselves closer and closer together.
Deresiewicz is no Luddite decrying the spread of technology, though. Contemporary suburban lives are often empty lives, and in that context
the Internet arrived as an incalculable blessing. We should never forget that. It has allowed isolated people to communicate with one another and marginalized people to find one another. The busy parent can stay in touch with far-flung friends. The gay teenager no longer has to feel like a freak. But as the Internet’s dimensionality has grown, it has quickly become too much of a good thing. Ten years ago we were writing e-mail messages on desktop computers and transmitting them over dial-up connections. Now we are sending text messages on our cellphones, posting pictures on our Facebook pages, and following complete strangers on Twitter. A constant stream of mediated contact, virtual, notional, or simulated, keeps us wired in to the electronic hive — though contact, or at least two-way contact, seems increasingly beside the point. The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone
To tell the truth, this is why I don’t blog every day. I mean, if someone were to pay me to do so, I would. Funny how that works. But until then I try to only write when I think I have something to say. I guess that’s why I haven’t yet cottoned to Twitter. If you want to hang out with me, give me a call and let’s go. If you want to know how it was, ask. Just don’t expect me to stop my flow to let you know.