Public Regions: The Fate of Solitude in the Age of Always Connect
Of course, it had to happen: Jeff Jarvis—speedtalking hyperpundit and phallusblogger around town—happened on my critique of his new, self-winding meme, the Civic Virtues of Radical Transparency (which he, with that tin ear for euphony that separates the typers from the writers, insists on calling “publicness”).
Now, Jarvis has answered my argument with a 1500 (and 1!)-word rebuttal, and, true to form, has answered it with admirable restraint and judiciousness. A becoming dignity is the mark of the man. That, and the urbane, understated wit we’ve come to expect from a writer who titles his book on privacy, publicness, and prostate cancer Public Parts. Not for him the shrill whine of the punctured windbag. He was even gentlemanly enough to pay me the supreme compliment of insisting my style was poles apart from his—high praise, from a writer whose prose is equal parts PowerPoint and chloroform; a quasihemidemisemi-intellectual who cites Julia Allison with approval.
But seriously: the debate about what Jarvis calls “the end of privacy and the benefits of publicness” in the Age of Always Connect is too important to be left to blogorrheics, corporate tools, and breathless cyberprophets of a great big beautiful tomorrow.
Even more thoughtful tech-culture critics such as Steven Berlin Johnson, the thinking man’s Jeff Jarvis, have left some of the most interesting questions raised by this debate unaddressed.
…there’s the question of the virtues of solitude in an age of compulsive gregariousness.
In his Chronicle of Higher Education essay “The End of Solitude,” William Deresiewicz offers a postmodern parable about our mania for connectivity and the toll it may be taking on our ability to be alone with ourselves, wandering the byways of our minds or simply experiencing our immediate surroundings:
[W]e live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. [...] I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That’s 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and toothbrushing time. So on average, she’s never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she’s never alone.
I once asked my students about the place that solitude has in their lives. One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she’ll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?
My inner skeptical inquirer raises an eyebrow at Deresiewicz’s unsupported assertion, familiar from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, that technology is “taking away” our ability to concentrate. Hard facts regarding technology’s effects on the human brain are hard to come by, and too many of them look squishy under close scrutiny. Moreover, today’s calamity howling about the brain-eating horrors of hypertext sounds uncomfortably similar to the alarms raised in the late ’70s by the shoot-your-TV school of media criticism—Marie Winn’s fulminations, in The Plug-In Drug, about the boob tube’s effects on early brain development; Jerry Mander’s insistence, in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, that TV is pickling our prefrontal lobes.
Nonetheless, Deresiewicz’s anecdotal claim that the frenetic connectedness of today’s teens leaves little room for solitude is amply evidenced by a recent Pew Internet & American Life study, which found that half of all teens who own cell phones (75% of 12-to-17-year-olds, up from 45% in 2004) send 50 or more text messages a day and one in three teens, like the girl in Deresiewicz’s story, “send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month.”
You’re thinking: And the point is—? Teenagers are, and always have been, the most manically social subspecies of naked ape; what else is new?
What’s new is the near-constant nature of their connectedness—the colonization of every spare second by digitally mediated socializing or interaction with entertainment media—and the consequent atrophy of the desire, maybe even the ability, to be alone.
Is the girl in Deresiewicz’s anecdote who wonders why anyone would want to be alone an outlier or a poster child for our times? What does it say about us, as a society, if we’re unable to be alone and unplugged without being bored or lonely?
Is the pervasive resistance to untethering ourselves from our social worlds or disconnecting ourselves from the media drip, even for an instant, at root a fear of the emptiness in our heads?
If Deresiewicz is right, should we preserve some small space in our lives for solitude—a Walden of the mind, away from the Matrix?
Questions to be asked, at least.
Then, too, we might ask ourselves what we mean when we talk about the self, whether social or solitary. History is littered with fossil selves: the sovereign self of the Age of Reason, confident that the conscious “I” (the “I” that says “I”) is the only “I” there is; the haunted house of the Freudian self, with its unconscious gnawing its cage bars in the basement; the alienated, existentialist self begotten by modernism; the fluid or multiple selves—”liquid subjectivities,” “anti-Oedipal” egos—of critical theory; the postmodern self that rips and remixes its self-image from media fragments and, like the characters in novels by Don DeLillo or J.G. Ballard, only recognizes itself as truly three-dimensional when it sees itself in the media mirror, a living image reified by celebrity.
“What does the contemporary self want?” Deresiewicz wonders.
The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge…the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.
My thoughts exactly, as expressed in a passage written before I’d read Deresiewicz’s essay:
Isn’t [our fetishization of fame] the motivation for much of what we call oversharing, online? Ours is the age of nanocelebrity…In the age of reality TV and Paris Hilton, American Idol and YouTube (which has the power, if your video goes viral, to turn you into a global celebrity, even if you’re just some guitar geek shredding Pachelbel’s Canon), we see fame as our Warholian birthright. [...] Thus, we’re increasingly comfortable with the disappearance of privacy and the prying media eye, not only because it affords a few minutes of Warholian fame but because, like the characters in White Noise, we only feel that we truly exist when we see ourselves reflected in the media eye, because that’s where the real reality is, these days: on the other side of the screen.
A meta- level up from all these interrelated points of argument is the binary opposition, as theory jocks like to call it, between the data cloud—the online welter of free-floating information and images—and the unplugged world of immediate experience; between face-to-face, here-and-now reality and the being-in-nothingness of our virtual lives, which are time-asynchronous, unmoored from geographical coordinates, and easily uncoupled from our identities, not to mention our bodies.
An article in this April’s New York Times (“Antisocial Networking?“) dramatizes that opposition. The reporter quotes researchers who claim that “initial qualitative evidence” supports the finding that “the ease of electronic communication may be making teens less interested in face-to-face communication with their friends.” According to the Times, child psychologists are worried that today’s youth, “unlike their parents—many of whom recall having intense childhood relationships with a bosom buddy with whom they would spend all their time and tell all their secrets—may be missing out on experiences that help them develop empathy, understand emotional nuances and read social cues like facial expressions and body language. With children’s technical obsessions starting at ever-younger ages—even kindergartners will play side by side on laptops during play dates—their brains may eventually be rewired and those skills will fade further, some researchers believe.”
Another Times article, from June of this year, quoted the MIT psychologist and tech-culture researcher Sherry Turkle observing, “There’s something that’s so engrossing about the kind of interactions people do with screens that they wall out the world…I’ve talked to children who try to get their parents to stop texting while driving and they get resistance, ‘Oh, just one, just one more quick one, honey.’ It’s like ‘one more drink.’”
The article kicked off with a quote from an early-childhood researcher who observed a disturbing interaction between a mom and her kid, emblematic of the sometimes jarring disconnect between our online lives and the offline world:
While waiting for an elevator at the Fair Oaks Mall near her home in Virginia recently, Janice Im, who works in early-childhood development, witnessed a troubling incident between a young boy and his mother. The boy, who Ms. Im estimates was about 2 1/2 years old, made repeated attempts to talk to his mother, but she wouldn’t look up from her BlackBerry. “He’s like: ‘Mama? Mama? Mama?’ ” Ms. Im recalled. “And then he starts tapping her leg. And she goes: ‘Just wait a second. Just wait a second.’ ” Finally, he was so frustrated, Ms. Im said, that “he goes, ‘Ahhh!’ and tries to bite her leg.”
How does this relate to the civic virtues of publicness—and the social costs of oversharing? The point, obviously, isn’t that the Web is the Devil’s Workplace; it’s that, increasingly, we tend our online social worlds at the cost of our face-to-face lives.
Regrettably, Jarvis misses the opportunity to wrestle with any of these pressing questions, preferring the easier out: an Ultimate Cage Fight with a straw man.
In his rebuttal, he tilts with a “prudish, disapproving, controlling, Victorian, media-obsessed, retrograde, predictable, snippy, snarky, and self-righteous” Comstock “with some apparent penis and anus problems” who wants to police standards of public behavior and would “like to tell us what not to say on the Internet,” a censorious Church Lady whose campaign to abolish all talk of penises might, if successful, cause men to “continue to not get checked,” which means “more will die” because, you know, Silence Equals Death.
(Sound of gritted teeth)
For the record, I was at pains in my post to applaud “Jarvis’s decision to publicize his cancer scare as a wake-up call to men of a certain age, a sort of PSA about PSAs,” as “truly generous of spirit.” As a fellow prostate-cancer survivor, I could hardly have done otherwise.
Moreover, I readily conceded that his “desire to reach out to his online flock in his hour of need is understandable enough,” although I questioned his reflexive faith in the medical advice of the comment-thread claque.
Also for the record, my Inner Civil Libertarian will defend to the death Jarvis’s right to talk about penises large or small, diseased or hale, marching proudly with head held high by Viagra or shriveling in fear at the approach of the fearsome Foley catheter. I have no argument with the Jarvis unit; long may it wave, or whatever it does.
Jarvis wants to reframe critiques of oversharing (which might be defined the uncritical notion that radical publicness is an unalloyed good) as a bluenoses’ campaign to police his speech—to deny him the right to share and share and share, already, about Little Jarvis. “The solution is for you not to read me,” he huffs. “Anyway, I’m not talking to you. I’m talking with my friends.”
But isn’t that the point?
As I’ve argued in my Boing Boing essay on friendship in the age of Facebook, social networking is deflating the currency of friendship by repurposing the term to include people we barely know—faceless names whose real purpose, on sites like Facebook and Twitter, is to burnish Brand Me by inflating my, er, social standing. (Even in cyberspace, Size Matters.) When Jarvis says he’s talking to his “friends,” does he really imagine that the legions who read his blog or his 44,304 Twitter followers are friends? What value can the term possibly have, in such a context? Loose usage blurs the distinction between followers, fans, and friends.
And while we’re kicking around the question of unrestrained “shariness” in a time of perpetual connectedness (with our online worlds, at least), shouldn’t we give some thought to the people we’re doing our sharing with? If we consider the disembodied inhabitants of these loose-knit social ecologies friends, as Jarvis seems to, we need to juxtapose that perception with the inconvenient truth that close friendships, according to some studies, are on the decline in America. A recent Time feature cited a 2006 Duke University study that found that “from 1985 to 2004, the percentage of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled, to 25%; the same study found that overall, Americans had one-third fewer friends and confidants than they did two decades ago.” Time is no stranger to fearmongering trend stories driven by dubious poll data and sexed up with scare quotes, so I’ll reserve judgment on the magazine’s speculation that intimate friendships, in America, have fallen victim to an empathy deficit incurred by “our increasing reliance on digital communication and other forms of new media.” Even so, the Duke study does suggest that face-to-face interaction is a key component in forming intimate social bonds, and that the wiring of our social lives may be partly to blame for the relative dearth of intimate friendships.
“Social Isolation and New Technology,” a 2009 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, pointedly refutes some of the Duke study’s findings while emphatically confirming that
compared to the relatively recent past, most Americans now have fewer people with whom they discuss important matters, and the diversity of people with whom they discuss these issues has declined. There is a wealth of scholarship to suggest that the implications of this trend for individuals and for American society are starkly negative. Smaller and less diverse core networks diminish personal well-being by limiting access to social support. There are simply fewer people we can rely on in a time of need – whether it is a shoulder to cry on, to borrow a cup of sugar, or to help during a crisis. Small and narrow core networks also impede trust and social tolerance; they limit exposure to the diverse opinions, issues, and ideas of others. If we increasingly rely and trust only a small inner circle of likeminded others, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize, accept or understand opposing points of view. A great deal of research has shown that diversity within our closest relationships—even in the age of the internet—is vital for the flow of information, for informed deliberation, and to maintain the participatory ideals of a democracy.
The Pew researchers refuse to lay the blame for the decline in intimate friendships and the diversity of our social circles on technology’s doorstep; in fact, they argue that “people’s lives are likely to be enhanced by participation with new communication technologies, rather than by fearing that their use of new technology will send them into a spiral of isolation.” That said, the study neglects entirely any nuanced discussion of the widely varied types of online social relationships—Twitter followers, Facebook friends, readers who comment on your blog, e-mail correspondents, and, if you’re a public figure such as Jarvis, fans and even critics or outright enemies who actively engage you in discussion in any or all of those forums. As well, it avoids any in-depth comparison of the differences between embodied (face-to-face) and disembodied (online) social interaction.
In his blog posts and published articles about publicness, Jarvis thumps his tub not just for the quintessentially human need to share, or for the joys of sharing, but for the virtuousness of sharing. It seems never to occur to him that our nonstop connectedness borders on the compulsive, and that our compulsion to connect, always and everywhere, may have hidden costs: the inability to enjoy the companionship of our thoughts in solitude or to savor the world around us, unmediated by screens.
Let me be clear: I have no quarrel with the desire to reach out and touch someone, online; my crosshairs, in the offending post, were trained on a society “so outward-focused, so frenetically interactive, so terminally social that we get a death letter and ‘the instinctive response is, I’d better tweet this up right away.’” It’s not the decision to tweet that galls, but the insistence that it must be tweeted right away, a conclusion so foregone it isn’t so much considered but “instinctive.” (These words, by the way, are Steven Berlin Johnson’s, but he gives the impression in his essay, for which he interviewed Jarvis, that Jarvis shares the sentiment.)
My argument wasn’t with the notion of sharing, it was with the elevation of oversharing to a civic virtue. Alert every man within tweeting distance to the urgent importance of getting tested for prostate cancer, reach out and touch someone online in your Dark Night of the Soul, but do we really need a pathologist’s report on every grisly, gristly detail of what ails you? Exhibitionism can be a way of hiding in plain sight: the full monty as half-truth. For all Jarvis’s confessionalism, we know more about his anatomy than we do about his psyche—his most searching thoughts and scarifying feelings in the face of every man’s worst nightmare, this side of death: erectile dysfunction. Jarvis’s publicness is a sign of our times; in these days of reality TV and celebrity sex tapes, we tell all and reveal nothing.