When I picked up a copy of The Digital Divide at a conference last fall, I didn’t realize the essays had been published elsewhere, in print and online. As I dipped into it on the plane ride home, I only wondered for a moment if I should have just waited to search for each of the essays and read them in their original contexts. By just a few pages in, I was already thankful that the collection had been curated for me in the particular form of a printed book. It seemed that simply based on my purchase and my subsequent satisfaction with it, perhaps I had already come down on one side of the debate at its core. The articles date from the nineties to 2011, when the book was published, and rather than digging deeply into current debates about the internet and its relationship to culture and social life, the collection offers a historical perspective on the way these debates have changed over the past decade or two. As we wonder about whether social media is helping or hindering our social lives, it helps to be reminded of a time---not particularly long ago, in fact---before it even existed. I have to admit that I find it difficult to remember what was different, or the same, about life before Facebook was invented in 2004.
My favorite essay in the collection is one of the last, “The End of Solitude,” by William Deresiewicz. It is wonderfully poetic in its exploration of the history and evolution of solitude and its role in art, literature, and religion. Deresiewicz begins his argument for the power of solitude this way: “In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few. Through the solitude of rare spirits, the collective renews its relationship with divinity.”
What, you might ask, does all this business about solitude have to do with the internet? Deresiewicz argues that in some ways, our contemporary conception of loneliness—the negative side of the solitude coin—was invented with the help of the internet. He compares this phenomenon to the relationship between boredom and television. Television offers the potential to snuff out boredom and silence. If you like, you can always have a bit of background entertainment filling your living room, restaurant, or airport. But in turn, the potential for constant entertainment breeds a fear of quiet. In the same way, Deresiewicz argues, the internet provides the potential for constant connectivity, and its dark underbelly is a fear of being alone.
Certainly the feeling of loneliness has a much longer history than the internet, and the connectivity of the internet has been, in Deresiewicz’s words, “an incalculable blessing” in helping us to find and communicate with others who share our dreams, interests, and experiences. The relationship between loneliness and the internet is not a question of the chicken or the egg, but rather a shift in balance. As Deresiewicz explains, “not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.”
As I consume article after article urging us to get away from our screens in order to be more creative, energetic, and productive, I wonder if the underlying charge is to simply create space for solitude, an uncomfortable but valuable state which is easier now than ever to avoid.
I suppose this is part of what drew me to the book as a printed book, rather than as an interactive series of links and comments. While I love letting my curiosity carry me from one link to another, I thought it might be interesting—and it was—to read about the internet, for once, alone.