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Stanton Peele

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Solitude: Alone or on the iPhone

Posted: 12/22/11 03:11 PM ET

Human beings are social animals -- they are also solitary ones. Many things in modern life are done alone, even within well-integrated families and social groups. Humans also shut off consciousness in the aloneness of sleep, and they die and descend into eternity. Of course, all living things die. But only humans are capable of developing elaborate fantasies to counteract death.

They are also capable of developing tools to avoid being alone, in a forlorn campaign against the eternal aloneness at the end of life. To put it simply, texting and e-mails are staying actions against the cessation of consciousness. If we are always in touch -- or potentially in touch -- with others, then we can believe for a time that we will never be separated from human contact.

This remedy for death and aloneness comes at the cost of people never experiencing solitude. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote about visiting Cuba, a country whose leadership has intentionally kept it out of the modern electronic cable news-blogosphere-internet ether:

Since visiting Cuba a few weeks ago, I've been thinking about the visual assault on our lives. Climb in a New York taxi these days and a TV comes on with its bombardment of news and ads. It's become passé to gaze out the window, watch the sunlight on a wall, a child's smile, the city breathing.

In Havana, I'd spend long hours contemplating a single street. Nothing -- not a brand, an advertisement or a neon sign -- distracted me from the city's sunlit surrender to time passing. At a colossal price, Fidel Castro's pursuit of socialism has forged a unique aesthetic, freed from agitation, caught in a haunting equilibrium of stillness and decay.

Such empty spaces, away from the assault of marketing, beyond every form of message (e-mail, text, twitter), erode in the modern world, to the point that silence provokes a why-am-I-not-in-demand anxiety.

And any last remnants of quiet and peace are always under attack. Alec Baldwin was kicked off a plane for refusing to shut down his electronic gadgetry on takeoff. Many have questioned whether this is really necessary. But I am not one of those clamoring for continuous internet access on airplanes. I like getting on a plane, shutting off my connections, and greeting whatever news I am to receive when I arrive at the hotel or the home at which I am staying.

Likewise, I travel on subways and elevated trains. On the elevated transport, people can speak on their cell phones. Many people complain that New York subways don't provide connectivity, while those in other parts of the world do. Believe me when I say I gladly sacrifice my Internet and cellular connections in exchange for not having to listen to someone nearby (or sometimes halfway across the train) carry on long, aimless, one-sided cell phone conversations.

People my age or not too much younger may remember times as a child -- and even later -- when they stared aimlessly at sunlight playing on trees, or lay on their backs looking up at clouds or otherwise engaged in that hopelessly antediluvian activity -- woolgathering. Can you recall how delicious that experience was? Or how you might wander into the woods or downtown for a few hours and no one, absolutely no one, knew where you were? (To replicate that experience today, I take long cityscape bike rides.)

I know -- horrors that a child be left "unprotected" for that long. Shame on me for remembering those experiences fondly.

Back to the present, and on to the future. Science fictionists have often imagined cyborgs -- part electronic, part human being. We are that already, and will become even more so. And the consequences for our consciousness (and, yes, brain stimulation patterns), our relationships, our contentment and our sense of ourselves (and our children's of themselves) cannot even begin to be imagined.

We are evolving into a different species. This species is typically alone in the sense of not actually interacting with or looking at or being in the presence of others. How could we spend time together -- we're too busy picking up messages from elsewhere! Paradoxically, our quest to evade the aloneness of death has made us more alone than ever.

 
 
 

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