Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. This is a brief installment. I’ll file it under the “Is this anything?” category, one idea for your consideration in under 500 words. In this case, a slightly different perspective on loneliness and digital media.
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We live in a world of pervasive connection but also rising rates of loneliness.How do we make sense of this state of affairs?
I suspect there are a few answers that may come readily to mind, particularly if you already take a dim view of social media. But I’m intrigued by a certain possibility that had not occurred to me until recently.
As I’ve thought about loneliness and digital networks over the years, I’ve done so in conversation with the work of the 20th century political theorist, Hannah Arendt. For one thing, I think Arendt was right about the political stakes. Loneliness and isolation, she argued, were the seedbeds of totalitarianism. In Origins of Totalitarianism, she wrote,
Loneliness, the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims, is closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the break-down of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.
Strong stuff. But essentially correct, in my view.
But Arendt also helps us distinguish among a variety of experiences that may bear a surface resemblance. Loneliness, for example, is to be distinguished from solitude, and solitude is essential to thought. Consider the following lines from The Life of the Mind:
Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about when I am alone without being able to split up into the two-in-one, without being able to keep myself company.
Not only is solitude essential to thought, but thought in this sense also wards off loneliness.When I am unable to keep myself company through the two-in-one dialog I carry on with myself, then solitude fades into loneliness.
With this in mind, I thought about how often I am prevented or prevent myself from entering into a state of solitude, from thinking as Arendt describes it, by the easy availability of digital media. At every moment, I have access to some form of stimuli—something to read, something to see, something to listen to, etc.I can always defer solitude. I need never resort to keeping myself company. I fall out of the habit of thought. In this way, perhaps, I have unwittingly invited a certain form of loneliness that is engendered rather than dispelled by mere connection. From this perspective, rising rates of loneliness may reflect not only the inability to bond with others but the fact that we have become strangers to ourselves.
There’s a steady stream of studies pointing to rising levels of loneliness across a variety of demographic cohorts. These trends preceded the pandemic, and, by most accounts, appear to have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
I’d say this view is correct but it should be acknowledged that we need both the inner dialog and the company of others.
It’s worth noting that much of what I can access is good and useful. My point here is not about the quality of the available media or even about distraction and attention. It is simply about the crowding out of solitude in Arendt’s sense and the interruption of the two-in-one dialog that constitutes thought.
As someone who is very intellectually curious, and enjoys discussing ideas with others, it’s a constant battle to take time to digest what I read, in solitude. And moderate my time online. This is, of course, exacerbated by a lack of real-life opportunities for for these discussions. Even managing a small bi-weekly in-person discussion group is a huge challenge, given our collective mad-cap pace of life. Subverting the excesses of the Machine from within is not easy! But necessary.
I am glad to see this discussion of the distinction between loneliness and solitude. I find the two terms to be wildly different and often conflated.
As a person who enjoys (and requires) a fair amount of solitude, I have often been asked by friends and family, "But don't you get LONELY?"
The truth is, I do get lonely sometimes. (Don't we all?) But in my personal experience, loneliness is more often a phenomenon that occurs when around other people (whether in-person or virtually), but not able to connect with them in a meaningful way. Solitude, for me, does not result in loneliness. In fact, it feels like a safe zone from the threat of loneliness. It allows me to disengage from the social minefields and expectations that are a breeding ground for the kind of loneliness described above. Solitude can be permission to disengage from the constant barrage of connectivity of the modern age.
I find the distinction between loneliness and solitude quite similar to the distinction between boredom and pause.