As an introvert, I tend to gravitate to books that shed light on spending time alone. Sometimes the book is worth the walk across the bookstore and other times, not so much. Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World, by Michael Harris, is definitely worth the trip.
Harris’ writing style is engaging–intelligent without being academic. He is the author of The End of Absence, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction. He writes about media, civil liberties, and the arts for dozen’s of publications–including The Washington Post, Wired, Salon and The Globe and Mail. His expertise shines through in Solitude.
Harris’ premise is that “in our drive to staunch loneliness, we have sacrificed solitude. ” He writes, that “fueled by our dependence on mobile devices and social media, we have created an ecosystem of obsessive connection.”
Citing research by Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, explains the concept of the ‘social brain’. By studying various species of monkeys, Dr. Dunbar discovered that there was a direct relationship between the size of their neocortex and the size of the communities. Also, the larger the group, the more time its members spent in social grooming. The purpose of social grooming in monkeys is not only to keep their fur clean, but also to express affection and make peace with others. Social grooming helps them to build and maintain good social relationships.
While we’re not cleaning our social contacts, Dunbar suggests that on-line connection is our form of social grooming. Harris goes on to suggest that, due to the size of our communities, the speed of connection and social media’s addictive qualities, we are seldom, if ever, truly alone.
What Have We Lost as Solitude Decreases?
What have we lost by being almost continually connected? The author explains how our creativity suffers when we don’t have time to daydream and let our minds wander. He gives many examples of great scientific advances that were made as a result of solitude (discoveries by Newton and Einstein to name a few), and voices concerns by scientists about what great thoughts may not happen because we are too stimulated to think deeply.
Another part of ourselves we may have lost, is our personal sense of choice. We’ve all experienced the selection of items, websites, etc. that are curated for us based on our life on-line. Harris suggests, that when we are supplied with items and activities based on our current likes, we are denied the opportunity to discover new things that may lead us to grow and develop new tastes, interests and skills.
When we are fed websites that suggest the ‘top 10’movies, restaurants, books and other forms of entertainment, do we as a culture, curtail our choices down to what has become popular? Do we really have a ‘personal style’?
Solitude in Death? Not necessarily!
Death used to be seen as the ultimate solitude, but is this still the case? How far will we go to avoid knowing that we are unreachable? According to Harris, our need to be connected goes as far as the creation of a start-up called Eterni.me. Harris explains:
“For about $10 a month, the service will collect your personal data in order to build and avatar that can stand in for you after your demise. This avatar will know everything about you worth knowing, and your friends/admirers, ancestors will be able to grill it for details. It will look like you too, and will converse with others so that they may feel connected–if not exactly to you then to the embodiment of your digital slime. In a sense, what Eterni.me offers is a Skype from the beyond.”
Why I recommend Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World .
Books provide various things to the reader. Some books are purely entertainment, and are best enjoyed quickly–like a novel that we can’t put down. Others, like reference books, share facts–we dip into them when needed. This is a ‘thinking’ book–to be enjoyed slowly and pondered over.
One of the things I love about Harris’ text is his use of personal experiments. He spends periods of the book detailing his attempted, and often failed, attempts at solitude as he undergoes a social media fast or spends a week alone in the middle of the woods. His realizations are enlightening and amusing. Harris recognizes the difficulty in becoming disconnected.
My curious nature appreciates the degree to which the author includes various fields of research as he explores his topic. His interviews are informative and led me to look into areas that I didn’t know about before reading his book.
This book stayed with me for quite awhile after I finished as it made me much more aware of not only my level of solitude, but also how my on-line and social media interactions shape my perspectives and choices. I’ll never look at the Amazon.ca suggested list in the same way!
Now a warning about what can happen if we’re allowed to be “immortal”…Enjoy!