The End of Solitude: Overtaken by Technology

I’m going to ask you to stop reading after this paragraph and try an experiment. Take out your phone, laptop, and any other devices you have. Turn on all their ringers and notifications. Sit and wait for as long as you can. Don’t read the texts or emails as the notifications pile up. Don’t answer the phone if it rings. Notice what arises within yourself. Go ahead…

…Well, how’d it go? Did it feel like an anxious energy was swelling as pings sounded and remained unchecked? Did the ambient sounds of your environment trigger your orienting response? Perhaps the devices were silent. What did that bring up? Did you sit still and remain calm with this absence of checking?

If you are like most people, the answer may be “no.”

A 2014 study by Timothy Wilson and his research group at Harvard found that people have a disquieting time just being alone with their internal experiences. Subjects were asked to sit quietly in a room without distractions for up to 15 minutes. Half the sample did not enjoy the experience and more than half found it hard to concentrate.

In one variation of the study, subjects had the option of self-administering a shock (sufficiently noxious that prior to the study they said they’d pay money to avoid it). Two-thirds of the men (12 of 18) gave themselves at least one shock, while only one-quarter of the women did so (6 of 24). One outlier gave himself 190 shocks! Lest we think this just applies to digital natives who have been weaned on technology, the study was replicated across age groups with similar results.

The lengths we go to avoid these quiet periods are documented by Michael Harris in The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. He reports that we collectively produce:

  • 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute
  • 637 photographs uploaded to Instagram every second
  • 4,000 text messages a teenager manages monthly
  • 4.5 billion items “liked” on Facebook in a year
  • 6 billion mobile phones worldwide
  • 144 billion emails sent daily
  • 1 trillion requests for information on Google

How, then, can we find and embrace emptiness in the sea of digital activity we swim through every day? The possibility of constant communication and information can make us allergic to absence. It’s not just that the technology is ubiquitous, invasive, and addicting. Its presence in our lives belies the deeper issue that the Wilson study touched upon: the ability to sit still with ourselves.

This is not a new issue. In the 17th century, Pascal warned,

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

Louis CK echoed this sentiment when he said the following in relation to cell phones:

“I think these things are toxic, especially for kids. […] You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something [emphasis added]… Everybody [is] murdering each other with their cars… People are willing to take a life and risk their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second.” 

As introverts, we have more capacity to sit quietly alone, yet we—like everyone else—love and depend upon our technology.

Rainer Maria Rilke said, “The thoughts that enter, even the most fleeting ones, must find me all alone; then they will decide to trust me again.” While Twitter and Instagram are great for catching the inspiration of a moment, they cannot plumb the depths of solitude that Rilke enjoyed, writing letters by hand.  

Pioneering psychologist B. F. Skinner made a career out of training pigeons to peck at spots, dance around, and press levers. He found, contrary to what one would expect, that when the food was dispensed only once in awhile instead of constantly, it created a stronger behavior—this is known as intermittent reinforcement operant conditioning. The more uncertain the food delivery was, the more furiously the birds would peck and the longer they would keep trying after the food was gone.

The very same process is at work with emails and texts (and it also explains the addictive power of slot machines). People check their phones up to 46 times per day, and the average worker checks email 74 times per day. This conditioning is what demands that we cleave to arriving information that will confirm us, connect us, and let us know that we are okay. We don’t seem to notice that most of this information is banal, irrelevant, or useless.

Thoreau observed,

“In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office.”

At least if you went to the actual post office 74 times per day, you’d get exercise!

Before the Internet, we somehow managed without instantaneous communication and information. We lived in gaps of absence. This is still possible today if we can transform how we interact with our technologies.

So, here’s a suggestion:

Instead of checking your phone 46 times and your work email 74 times per day, focus on checking your breathing. Before responding to what’s in your inbox, pause and feel an entire breath moving through your body, from the air touching the tip of your nose down through your lungs and back out again.

Perhaps, after being with your breath in this way, you’ll decide to forego checking your inbox and continue working on the task at hand. This “obsessive” checking of breath creates a mindful pause, a running stitch of awareness that helps to build the buffers of absence that we so desperately need to focus efficiently and effectively.

By being more mindful around our devices, we can reclaim some of our solitude without needing to ambivalate over the very technologies we depend upon.

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