Never alone

From William Deresiewicz’s article The End of Solitude in the new edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The two emotions, loneliness and boredom, are closely allied. They are also both characteristically modern. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations of either word, at least in the contemporary sense, date from the 19th century … Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence. The lost sheep is lonely; the shepherd is not lonely. But the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom. If six hours of television a day creates the aptitude for boredom, the inability to sit still, a hundred text messages a day creates the aptitude for loneliness, the inability to be by yourself. Some degree of boredom and loneliness is to be expected, especially among young people, given the way our human environment has been attenuated. But technology amplifies those tendencies. You could call your schoolmates when I was a teenager, but you couldn’t call them 100 times a day. You could get together with your friends when I was in college, but you couldn’t always get together with them when you wanted to, for the simple reason that you couldn’t always find them. If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the Web generation. We lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness. They have lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude.

7 thoughts on “Never alone

  1. Tom Lord


    You have to understand this story in connection to the economy and to the war on the middle class and poor in the U.S. No, really.

    There are at least two angles to consider:

    One angle is that in the ruthless technopundit class you can monetize popularity. Whence the blogosphere, the social networking sites, etc. Listen to Tim O’Reilly talk on NPR about the number of his followers on Twitter, for example, and think of the impact of that on the pundits-in-waiting. A narcissistic bent among the capitalist class is distorting the values of a much larger group of Internet “performers” in quite deep ways.

    Another angle has nothing to do with the effete pretenders to power and much more to do with the economically constructed social isolation of the prols. (No, I’m not a marxist or a Marxist.)

    Look at my own case. I’m F’ing poor mostly because I got screwed by a handful of corrupt employers at a critical stage in my career. I’m not here to plead my side of that story — that’s a different story — but just understand that I’m one of many, many people for whom this “land of opportunity” is anything but.

    One of the practical consequences of economic oppression in the context of our built environment (where people live) and institutions (what organized activities a person can join, and for how much money) — the consequence is that those things add up to me not being able to afford most opportunities to socialize.

    I participate in on-line “reveals” with total strangers mainly because who the hell else is there around that I could talk with and that I can afford access to?!? Nobody (near enough)!

    My point is that it’s not simply that some folks wrote “dumb idea” programs to implement social networks or wikipedia or whatever and therefore we suffer these social problems. My point is that economic oppression generally created the distorted, unhealthy demand for any kind of contact at all that these unwholesome services then exploit.

    The untapped demand that programmers can work on, if we can organize well enough, is to write communications programs and other tools that palpably help to end the economic oppression. It’s hard to get there, though, when (just to keep picking on him) O’Reilly (as an example) spends so much mental effort contemplating his score on the Twitter game.


  2. Ivo Quartiroli

    When, in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the governor asked youths if they never faced a difficulty which couldn’t be overcome and had to endure a long time between a desire and its fulfillment, after some silence (during which the director started to become nervous while waiting), one of them confessed that once he had to wait almost four weeks before a woman whom he was attracted to conceded herself to him. The strong feeling associated with the waiting was “horrible” according both to the youngster and the governor, which the latter added that our ancient people were so stupid that, when the first reformers came to save them from those horrible feelings, they would reject them.

    Now technologies avoid reflective time and tend to minimize the gaps between a want and its fulfillment, causing irritation when there isn’t a quick response to our inputs, feeding this way the persistance of a childish attitude toward reality.

  3. marc farley

    I read Deresiewicz’s article and I think its a terrific example of someone making silly generalizations about another (younger) generation they don’t fully understand and wanting to find a reason for their perceived shortcomings.

    Solitude is not lost. Kids today spend time by themselves without reaching out and texting or talking. They may be more accessible to each other than we were at their age, but that doesn’t mean they don’t find time to be alone with their thoughts. They are much more adept and efficient at communicating quickly through their social networks than we are. We shouldn’t resent their having a facility we don’t fully understand.

  4. martin

    I agree with Mark Farley. This seems to be an article lamenting the state of “young people today”. Deresiewicz’s superficial analysis of the younger generation neglects the underlying complexity of their relationships. It also fails to recognize that people change as they grow older. Someone who abhors solitude as a teenager my grow up into someone who likes the occasional bit of peace and quiet.

  5. Nick Carr


    I agree that there’s a lot of hand-waving about the young-uns in the article, but I think Deresiewicz’s analogy between TV/boredom and Net/loneliness is an interesting and thoughtful idea that bears consideration. The second paragraph of your comment actually strikes me as a pretty broad generalization, one that doesn’t ring entirely true. How much solitude does one have when one is processing hundreds, if not thousands, of electronic messages and signals a day – whether one is a kid or a grownup?


  6. Thomas

    I can kind of see where other Tom is coming from. There’s been a significant bubble in the economy over my entire (brief) working life. My generation’s very much separated into winners/losers, and the idea of working your way up has fallen somewhat by the wayside. Realistically, although I’ve done all right for myself, my odds of having a six-figure salary are mostly gone at 27. Not really a major social tragedy compared to 1980s Liverpool though :-)

    London media/finance land has a definite social foam where people are just trying to keep up on memes and/or jostle for position. I wouldn’t say it’s overwhelming, but it is discernible. Twitter has definitely ridden off the back of that *need* to constantly self-promote.

  7. Steven

    Reminds me of singer/songwriter Greg Brown’s 2000 song, ‘Cept You & Me, Babe. Deliciously sarcastic and insightful:

    half the people you see these days are talking on cell phones

    driving off the road & bumping into doors

    people used to spend quite a bit of time alone

    i guess nobody’s lonely anymore

    ‘cept you & me babe

    ‘cept you & me

    it’s raining sheets of rain

    everything is cold and wet

    nobody’s going out of doors

    they’re all at home living it up on the internet

    so i guess nobody’s lonely any more

    ‘cept you and me babe

    ‘cept you and me


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