Solitude is an occasionally interesting reflection on the many qualities of loneliness in a time where we’re almost always connected with others.
When were you last alone? Really alone? Without people surrounding you and without all the virtual connections we’re constantly entangled in. For how long did this alone time last? A couple of hours, perhaps even all of 24 hours?
Being alone seems a thing of the past. We almost always find ourselves in herds, whether with people made of flesh and blood or on social media. We endlessly communicate via the bright screens we bring with us into public as well as private spaces. We share, comment on and like our own lives and the lives of others in a big common throng where loneliness seems almost like a taboo. We feel compelled to fill every opening we have with something. Waiting for the bus, for the light to turn green, for the wife to come off from work; all these pockets of time that could have been empty are instead filled with some kind of content.
What is the problem with this lack of alone time? They’re many, if we are to believe Michael Harris, author of the (at first glance) deeply interesting book Solitude. In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World.
Technology to blame
Harris sets out to investigate why we can no longer bear solitude, what we’re losing out on without it – and therefore what we can gain by its discovery. Solitude comes across as a diatribe against technology. The reader is long left with the impression that Harris, who is obviously himself an avid consumer of technology, deep down hates it and considers it the root of all evil: social media is always demanding our attention. The small, lovable smartphone games reward our brains with a shot of dopamine and force us to play again and again because it feels good.
Apps like Google Maps and Yelp ensure that we never get lost and can always plan our ventures into the unknown, making that, too, feel familiar. Even nature has been turned into a game – when going Pokemon hunting has become the purpose of outdoor expeditions, and when we can no longer merely stand and stare at a tree, but absolutely want to get the feeling that we’re doing something. «Daydream Destroyers», Harris calls it in his anti-technological lingo. Why spend so many pages on identifying technology as the main culprit, we may wonder, and Harris’s line of reasoning is occasionally somewhat facile. Like when he claims that the use of a GIF to communicate deprives us of a «personal style.» Couldn’t one just as easily argue that a personal can manifest itself through the use of a GIF?
As the book progresses, however, more nuance is introduced. Harris explains how humans have always had to relate to the inventions we’ve introduced to our world, and thus adjust to new ways of life. The invention of books, too, was a disruptive form of technology, for reading is not a natural activity for the brain – books are something humans had to learn to navigate through.
What can solitude be used for, provided that we can rediscover it in our high-tech world? A jumble of good things, concludes Harris on his tour of various research environments. The best ideas come to us when we’re alone – when our thoughts can wander freely. «Creativity and originality are the companions of solitude,» we’re told. Similarly, in solitude a form of recharging of the body occurs. When we’re alone and don’t have to relate to others, we allow the body to recover itself more fundamentally.
Then there’s the self-awareness. The search for solitude may strikes us as an extremely selfish pursuit, but in Harris’ eyes it’s more about finding your peace of mind and serenity than about self-centredness and «me-time». From solitude follows an inner peace that also benefits the collective; it’s easier to invite other people into your life the moment you’ve attained a serene state of mind.
Every so often Harris interrupts his scientific focus with accounts of his own attempts at finding solitude. We’re told about his little wanderings, suggesting a longing for a Thoreauan disappearance into nature – if only for a week or so at the time. These everyday descriptions are often more interesting than the oft-repeated attacks on technology and praise of the value of solitude.
There’s something a bit too instrumental in Harris’s thinking as he attempts to «sell» us the idea of solitude. Nor is the author’s logic always particularly convincing, as when he claims that if you’re alone, you also become more like yourself.
Streams of thought
The book never quite feels like a whole – for that, it is too fluttering and incoherent. On page after page we’re lectured about technology’s many sins, only to be suddenly informed of what wonders reading can accomplish, whether it happens in solitude or in the company of others. We’re next told why many young people today want to learn how to write love letters by hand or on old-fashioned typing machines.
It is difficult to figure out exactly what Harris wants with all this. Perhaps he’s merely communicating his own fleeting streams of thought, created in moments of solitude – but if that’s the case, the book may be more interesting to Harris himself.